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I often catch myself trying to write ?explaination, phonetically spelling the word in my head. To my chagrin I get part way through and have to stop myself.

So I’m wondering why is the i dropped? I can’t think of other words ending ‑ain that take the ‑ation suffix for comparison.

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At least you're not Ricky Ricardo, you'd be dropping the "e", too. – JeffSahol Aug 14 '12 at 18:07
@JeffSahol Ehh? – Pureferret Aug 14 '12 at 18:12
“Lucy! You got some splainin to do …” – MετάEd Aug 14 '12 at 18:13
Yes, the ‑tain > ‑tention version is far easier to explain, as in abstention, detention, irretention, manutention, obtention, retention, sustention, tention, all due to that already happening in Latin ‑tenēre > ‑tentiōnem. – tchrist Aug 14 '12 at 18:31
There are plenty of other examples of dropped/altered vowels: Explain goes to Explanation much like Exclaim goes to Exclamation, and Pronounce goes to Pronunciation, and Maintain goes to Maintenance. – J.R. Aug 14 '12 at 19:44
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Expanding on ΜετάEd’s answer, the alternation between long /e:/ and short /a/ (or reduced version thereof, schwa or a mid-high vowel) is now frequent in Modern English (and harks back to the Great Vowel Shift).

So, alongside expl[e:]n ~ expl[ə]nation, you also have:

  • ex'pl[e:]n ~ expl[æ]natory
  • ins[e:]ne ~ ins[æ]nity (insane ~ insanity)
  • in[e:]ne ~ in[æ]nity (inane ~ inanity)
  • n[e:]tion ~ n[æ]tionality (nation ~ nationality)
  • [e:]ble ~ [ə]bility (able ~ ability)

As you hunched and ΜετάEd pointed out, there is an orthographic oddity to explain, in that its /e:/ sound alternates with a lax vowel, but it is, orthographically, ai. The nearest I can come to like examples is:

  • retain ~ retention (this too is an etymological oddity, examples like contend ~ contention, intend ~ intention_, and so on, would lead one to expect retend ~ retention)
  • inveigh ~ invective (where the origin of eigh is again etymologically odd, coming from invehere)

As the parenthetic comments make clear, these are as much oddities as the case you identified.

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OEtmD says explain was “originally explane, spelling altered by influence of plain”.¹

There have been many different ways that English words have been spelled to indicate pronunciation. The word plain, for example, has been spelled plain, plane, plaine, playn, playne, pleyn, plegn, and plen.²

Over time, spelling has become more consistent: for example, we use plain and plane, and have stopped using the others. But spelling has not been regularized to the point where every similar word uses the same spelling rule to indicate pronunciation.

There is not really a particular reason why we ended up with a particular spelling: or, rather, the reason is simply that the language evolved to be so.

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Then why drop the "e"? ;) – CodeBlue Aug 14 '12 at 20:17
Looking at examples in the OED, it seems that the word "explanation" is older (first documented use 1382) than the verb "explain" (1535). – Alex B. Aug 14 '12 at 20:41
OEtmD has explain early 15C (early 1400's). – MετάEd Aug 14 '12 at 20:43
Here's what Upward & Davidson 2011 say in their book, "The History of English Spelling": "More strikingly anomalous is explain, whose source, as is more apparent from the noun explanation, is the Latin explanare (Modern French expliquer ‘to explain’ derives from Latin explicare, whence also explicable); explain had the alternative form explane, but by not following the respelling of the cognate plain as plane in the 17th century, it now falsely suggests a relationship with unrelated complain (< Old French complaindre < Late Latin complangere)." – Alex B. Aug 14 '12 at 20:46
Playing with Middle English corpora, I found "explane" in "Treatises of fistula in ano" written by John Arderne (1307–1392), "I may plenerly explane tham in this litel boke" (page 3, line 23). – Alex B. Aug 14 '12 at 21:06

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