13

I've noticed that "chaperone" can also be spelt "chaperon", without the "e" at the end.

Is this a case of American English simplifying a British English word, or something else? The original French seems to lack the "e".

Wiktionary mentions the two spellings, but doesn't explain why they exist.

  • 8
    I've pretty much always (in the US) seen it spelled "chaperone" (and pronounced with the associated "long" O). – Hot Licks Feb 7 '16 at 20:47
  • The oddly-accented guy on Collins pronounces the O halfway between long and short, a little bit like he's unsure which is correct. – Hot Licks Feb 7 '16 at 20:50
  • 2
    (I strongly suspect that the e-added version is used because a long O is assumed.) – Hot Licks Feb 7 '16 at 20:52
  • 7
    I've never seen "chaperon" in US English writing before. – Russell Borogove Feb 8 '16 at 2:12
18

The corpora I checked indicate that both forms are used on both sides of the Atlantic. The BYU-BNC British National Corpus has 32 instances of chaperon and 32 of chaperone from the 1980s to 1993. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 277 instances of chaperone and 60 instances of chaperon from 1990 to 2015. (I excluded the spoken sections.) So there are clearly some differences across time and space, but chaperon is actually older or more British or both; it's definitely not a new American simplified spelling.

Surprisingly to me, the Oxford English dictionary treats "chaperone" as merely a common error for "chaperon", not even listing it alongside the other variant spellings such as chapperoon, shaparoon, shaparowne. It gets a special note:

[In the sense of a companion]... English writers often erroneously spell it chaperone, apparently under the supposition that it requires a feminine termination

If this is the actual origin of the spelling, I guess it would make it doubly erroneous now, since in modern usage the word is often gender-neutral.

But it's not clear that the e was intended to be a feminine termination. There are other words from French that don't refer to female people, but have definitely have gained an e, such as morale, locale, ladrone (the last one seems to be also taken from Spanish ladrón). An "extra" e also occurs in some words taken from other languages such as German (chorale, ketone). For most of these words, it seems to be connected to the stress or vowel quality of the last syllable. All the dictionaries I've found say that the primary stress in chaperon(e) falls on the first syllable, but some transcribe secondary stress on the third, and all seem to agree that it has an unreduced vowel (the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following three pronunciations: /ˈʃapərɒn/ /ˈʃapərɔːn/ /ˈʃapərəʊn/). This differs for example from apron /ˈeɪprən/ which had the same suffix in French but was borrowed earlier and now has a reduced schwa vowel (or a syllabic nasal) in English.

Another possible source of confusion is that the Italian augmentative suffix -one is spelled with an e. So English words taken from Italian often are spelled with a final e, which in many words is pronounced as a separate vowel (such as in minestrone) but in some words is silent, or optionally silent (trombone, provolone, calzone). (And in balcony, it was respelled to -ony).

  • My pronunciation, and I've never heard usage noticeably inconsistent with it (U.S. midwest), is split between /'ʃæ:pərɤɯn/ (more likely when used as a verb) and /ʃæpər'ɤɯn/ (more likely when used as a noun). – david Feb 9 '16 at 20:01
9

The variant "chaperone" appears to be from a mistake:

Chaperon:

  • 1720, "woman accompanying a younger, unmarried lady in public," from French chaperon "protector," especially "female companion to a young woman," earlier "head covering, hood" (c. 1400), from Old French chaperon "hood, cowl" (12c.), diminutive of chape "cape" (see cap (n.)). "...

  • English writers often erroneously spell it chaperone, app. under the supposition that it requires a fem. termination" [OED]. The notion is of "covering" the socially vulnerable one.

According to Ngram "chaperone" is common both in AmE and BrE, and is now the more common form Ngrm both in AmE and BrE.

  • 11
    It may have started as an error, at least according to that source, but I think it should be considered the correct spelling in both American and British English because it is more common and more well-understood (as an American, I wouldn't even know what the chaperon variation meant without context, and I'd have assumed it was a typo). – Keavon Feb 7 '16 at 23:06
  • @Keavon - as shown in my answer, the 'chaperone' variant is the more common both in BrE and AmE. It is interesting that it all started with a wrong assumption. – user66974 Feb 8 '16 at 10:34
  • 2
    Fun fact related to the etymology; the Perrault version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge*/*Little Red Riding Hood ends with the moral that young girls should not be without their caperon, a pun that would be obvious when one has just read the etymology above, but otherwise doesn't work in translation. – Jon Hanna Feb 8 '16 at 10:34
  • From a French-speaker perspective, I've always thought that English writers just wrote it like they pronounce it. I've seen "prochain" written as "prochaine" even though the subject was masculine, for example. They tend to pronounce the "n", resulting in the extra "e" when they write. – MetalMikester Feb 8 '16 at 12:46
  • @MetalMikester: As an English-speaker who's learning French, what you say about "prochain/prochaine" definitely seems true (English speakers are inclined to pronounce the "n" as a consonant even when the word is masculine, which can cause them to mistakenly write it with an "e" in French). For English words borrowed from French, though, it's normal for "n" to be pronounced no matter how the word is spelled. For example, English "plain" comes from French "plain"; the "n" is pronounced, but no "e" is added. In some words, such as "pain" (from French "peine"), the French "e" is even removed. – sumelic Feb 8 '16 at 22:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.