As I set out on this project I noticed that there are already several questions at EL&U referring to the words here in question. But what can I do?
In Merriam-Webster’s entry for victuals, it is remarked that the word vittles “sounds like it might be an alteration of the plural victuals but… actually entered English a century before victual.”
But their entry for vittles defines vittles as “VICTUALS -- now chiefly used playfully to evoke the supposed language of cowboys.” The two entries give the same pronunciation.
I feel like I’m missing something here, but I’m not totally sure what that is. Please find my confusion.
Now as always, there’s only one word, with one pronunciation (rhyming with belittles) and one meaning (food). During the 14th Century the spelling was vittles, but ever since, the normal spelling has been victuals.
Today in spoken English the only form still rhymes with belittles. So although when I pronounce it in the only correct way I feel like I’m playfully evoking the language of Jed Clampett, and I’d much rather say VIK-chew-alls, that’s all just the craziness in my mind. The only distinction is in the writing.
When writing we have the option of spelling it either victuals or vittles, making the second choice when we want playfully to evoke the supposed language of cowboys. As the excerpts in the Merriam-Webster entries seem to show, the writers who intend a light touch spell it phonetically, and the tonier writers spell it with the silent c.
ON THE ONE HAND: VICTUALS
- the navy was usually equipped, clothed and victualled by the Crown
- that evening the travelers victualed sumptuously on partridge and venison
- Or, just buy a bottle and some victuals from the on-site shop, and get in on the picnic action yourself. — Kristin Luna, Condé Nast Traveler, "3 Best Day Trips from Nashville," 4 Mar. 2018
- Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication. — Andrew Lawler, Science | AAAS, "Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean," 24 Apr. 2018
ON THE OTHER HAND: VITTLES
The vendors sold souvenirs and knickknacks and all manner of local vittles. — Frank Deford
Taco Cabana of San Antonio makes sure its vittles are the freshest Tex-Mex north of the Rio Grande. — Richard S. Teitelbaum
My mother turned an icy stare on her, leaving my father to try to make amends. "All you kids have to stay for dinner. Leo and I'll rustle up some vittles." "Vittles?" my mother asked with disdain. "Food," my father said. "In cowboy movies, they call it vittles." "I abhor cowboy movies," she said, and returned to her room. — Pat Conroy
There's a caterer's kitchen with its own entrance, and a dumbwaiter for the vittles and drinks. — Rohan Preston Star Tribune, Star Tribune, "$1.5M Eden Prairie luxury home is a stargazer's delight," 11 Dec. 2020
But viral and bacterial genetic material didn’t always track together, Brown said, hinting that some protists might have skipped the middleman and gone straight for the viral vittles. — Katherine J. Wu New York Times, Star Tribune, "Nothing eats viruses, right? Meet some hungry protists," 24 Sep. 2020
SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE FIRST FEW DAYS' ACTIVITY
The discussion so far makes me wonder: what sort of a pair of words are victuals and vittles?
- They are simply two spellings for one word, both correct, with no other difference in pronunciation or meaning. Colorizing and colourising are in this class. My trouble with this theory is that (1) the Merriam-Webster definitions don’t seem to read this way, associating only one word with cowboys and providing a second full entry instead of just redirecting to the first entry, (2) the cited examples seem to associate victuals with a higher tone than vittles, and (3) where the writing reports a spoken conversation, the high tone of victuals and the low tone of vittles would seem to require a different pronunciation.
- They are two spellings for one word, one correct and one incorrect, with no other difference in pronunciation or meaning. Writing nolij for an ignorant speaker’s correct pronunciation of knowledge would typify this group. My problems here are the three cited above, but also that (4) Merriam-Webster does not disparage either spelling, victuals or vittles, and (5) in the quoted instances neither word appears beside whimsical misspellings, like “We wuz skinny cuzza dey’d alwayz gave us widdle enuf viddles to keep us alives." whimsical misspellings which would apparently support the characterization of vittles as aye-dialick, a spelling that records a correct pronunciation amidst a generally inferior English style.
- They are two spellings of one word, reflecting less refined and more refined pronunciations. Britches (vs. breeches), crick (vs. creek), critter (vs. creature), dawg (vs. dog), me (meaning 'my,' vs. my), pardner (vs. partner), weskit (vs. waistcoat), and wittles (vs. victuals and vittles), exemplify this possibility, because the nonparenthetical spelling suggests a worse pronunciation. My problem here is that Merriam-Webster does not indicate any difference in pronunciation.
- They are two spellings of one word, reflecting two acceptable pronunciations. In this class are words like wander'd and burnish'd, where the apostrophe indicates very little stress on that final vowel, distinct from the heavily stressed final vowel when actors say for Romeo "banished" or for Hamlet "damned.” Again, Merriam-Webster does not indicate any difference in pronunciation.
So it feels like something's got to give.