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My two daughters demanded to know this. I speculated that it was artificially inserted, perhaps in the 17th-18th century, perhaps to make the word look more like populus, somewhat similar to the way the spurious ‘s’ was added to ‘island’. I later learned that the Middle English spelling was peeple or peple, which I think tends to support this hypothesis, but I don't know. The picture is further confused by the existence of the Old French form people. Perhaps the ‘o’ was dropped, and then the older form was revived?

I consulted several dictionaries before posting this, including the Online Etymology Dictionary, and did not find any with a definitive answer.

Is anything specific known about the introduction of the ‘o’?

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OED lists a number of Anglo-Norman spellings, including pople. –  Andrew Leach Apr 7 at 15:19
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People was one way to spell the Old French peupel, which had a vowel not present in English. Spelling (especially the spelling of borrowed words) was not standardized in English until the 15th century, so there were always many variants available. Your daughters will find it even more surprising that nobody ever learned English spelling until then. Before then, people just tried to represent the words they said in a way that made sense to them, so that everybody's spelling was as distinct as people's handwriting still is today. –  John Lawler Apr 7 at 16:02
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The "s"was not added to island, it was dropped in the pronunciation :) –  oerkelens Apr 7 at 16:50
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@oerkelens: The 's'* was definitely added to iland. The OED shows that the spellings in Old English were: ígland, íland, egland, eglond. Some time in late Middle English, people confused it with the French word île, which comes from the Old French word isle, originally from the Latin word insula, and added a spurious 's' to it. –  Peter Shor Apr 7 at 17:00
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I stand corrected. I did confuse it with the French and I didn't give the English enough credit to come up with their own word for the piece of land they lived on. I will now bend over and receive my due punishment. –  oerkelens Apr 7 at 17:29

5 Answers 5

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I consulted Jesse Sheidlower, an editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary. He said that my characterization of the Middle English form as having been peple or peeple was incorrect, and that “Middle English had a tremendous number of spellings”, the ‘eo’ form among them. So my idea that the ‘o’ was dropped and later revived is certainly wrong. Rather, the many other forms died out, leaving only the ‘eo’ form that we still have. Mr. Sheidlower says “it's not clear why the 'eo' form became the standard one”. It seems likely that there is no definitive answer to the question of why ‘people’ now has an ‘o’.

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Nice work answering your own question! –  Bradd Szonye Apr 8 at 3:31

People: late 13c., "humans, persons in general," from Anglo-French people, Old French peupel "people, population, crowd; mankind, humanity," from Latin populus "a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude, crowd, throng," of unknown origin, possibly from Etruscan. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish pueblo, Italian popolo. In English, it displaced native folk.

Source: etymonline

Looks like the Latin influence is responsible for the "o"

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Latin populus meaning folk. populus Romanus - the Roman folk or all the Romans or all Roman people.The Latin o changed in French to a vowel between o and e (le peuple) and in English the o became /i:/. Instead of writing ee one chose to write eo to show the connection with Latin populus.In German there is still the word der Pöbel, meaning people of the lowest social level.

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I do not know specifically of the word people, but I do know that there was a period from the 16th to 17th century when we tried to formalize spelling by adding silent letters to words to make them more closely resemble their believed (and occasionally incorrect) Latin or Greek roots.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-language_spelling_reform#16th_and_17th_centuries

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People, noun [French, peuple; Latin, populus; ME. peple.] Its obvious that through word blending the present usage was derived. We owe much to French & Latin in the orthography of English words. Source: Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, 1828 & 1981 editions.

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