Why is the word "work" spelled with an "o"? I can't find the answer anywhere. I know it comes from Old English "weorc" but I can not find how it came to be spelled "work" instead of "werk".

  • However it happened, you can be sure it took a lot of work.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 2:23
  • Why are these words spelled door, mirror, terminator, motor, corridor? Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 4:00
  • If you have received a useful answer, the custom of the site is to check-mark it.
    – Theresa
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 1:45

3 Answers 3


Why are worship, world, worse, worm, word, worry, worth all spelled with "o"s? There was a sound change in many words beginning "wor" at some point after English spelling became fixed. When Shakespeare wrote

I think good thoughts whilst other write good words,
And like unletter'd clerk still cry 'Amen'
To every hymn that able spirit affords
In polish'd form of well-refined pen,

it rhymed. He also rhymes worth with forth. However, he rhymes worse with curse, so presumably worse was already pronounced the modern way; either the sound change had already happened or it had acquired its modern pronunciations for other reasons.

  • This is all correct, but I think it actually misses the intention of the question. As I read it, the question is asking why the original vowel (which was an /e/, not an /o/) became /o/ over time. This happened long before Shakespeare’s times: even in Old English, it is both weorc and worc. The more relevant sound change, I think, is the Anglo-Frisian breaking of vowels before /l, r/ + consonant, whereby /werk/ > /we͜ork/. /e͜o/ later became /ø/ > /e/ generally, but the preceding /w/ seems to have had a → Commented May 23, 2017 at 14:33
  • → retracting effect in some words, so /ø/ > /o/ instead. Middle English forms do include both werc and work and wurk, so the vowel probably differed and fluctuated dialectally. In the other Germanic languages, the vowel is pretty much uniformly (historical) /e/. And of course, as you say, later on /er/ and /or/ generally merged after rounded consonant, further muddling things. It is notable, though, that there are still dialects, particularly in Scotland, where work and berk do not rhyme, nor word and herd. Commented May 23, 2017 at 14:35
  • @Janus: I have to agree that it looks like the whole history is very complicated. And even Shakespeare's pronunciation is more complicated than my answer makes it. He seems to have rhymed worse with curse but not verse, rehearse or disperse (which all rhymed with each other). Commented May 23, 2017 at 15:38

English pronunciation is often difficult to decode from orthography (correct spelling). Spelling relates more closely to etymology (word origin) and word history.

The letter r operates as a quasi-vowel, in that it influences the sound of the vowel that appears immediately before it.

Consider another rhyme with the vowel "O":

With one you can run,
with two you can go,
but when you've got three you must 'bide where you be.

This saying refers to a mother and the number of children she has. One rhymes with run, and three with be, so it is probable that this saying came about at a time when two rhymed with go. If that is not so, the saying is still a good illustration of the variety of "o" sounds.

  • Sounds like an old wives' tale to me. Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 10:01
  • In the days before automobiles, it was not easy to go anywhere with three children.
    – Theresa
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 1:46
  • Unless you lived in a shoe. Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 7:28

I tread somewhere that when Caxton and others first put words into print they spelled them according to the way they were pronounced in that part of England they came from. Even now the pronunciation of the language is not standardized. That is why spelling is such a horror for some kids. Efforts to standardize spelling by people such as GBS have not succeeded.

  • GBS did not attempt to standardise spelling. He attempted to change the alphabet so that, in his thinking, spelling would be more intuitive.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 12:52
  • 1
    This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 12:52
  • I won't argue with you Chenmunka but the changing the alphabet would have resulted to his mind in standardizing the spelling. Except that there are literally dozens of different accents in Britain alone and English is spoken in many parts of the world as are Spanish, French and other languages.
    – Aled Cymro
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 10:28

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