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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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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  • 4
    Why did people start spelling it victuals? The word vittles was derived (via French) from the Latin word victualia, with a "c". In the 15th and 16th centuries, pedants tried to add back letters that had been dropped from the Latin form, so we now spell iland with a silent "s", dette with a silent "b", and vittles with a silent "c". Feb 12 at 17:19
  • 1
    Dictionary.com says 'vittles' is a non-standard variant of 'victuals'. Lexico marks it archaic. Feb 12 at 17:25
  • 4
    It's like spelling 'breeches' as 'britches' (the usual pronunciation) and 'waistcoat' as 'weskit' (an old-fashioned alternative pronunciation). Sometimes such spellings are used to represent uneducated speech. In Patrick O'Brian's historical novels, Captain Aubrey's uncouth servant often announces "Wittles is up" when dinner is ready. Feb 12 at 17:45
  • 2
    There used to be a convention of spelling some words 'phonetically' when portraying the speech of a 'lower-class' character, even when some of those spellings actually represent the standard pronunciation. Feb 12 at 17:55
  • 1
    @KateBunting That seems exactly like how we sometimes use the eye-dialect spelling of crick for creek in speakers who have a short vowel there not a long one even though it is the same word. Also how we sometimes still represent the unstressed /mi/ pronunciation of my common in some UK speakers as if it were really spelled me even though it is not and even though they aren't saying that word but my; it just sounds like me not /mai/ for want of stress. These are the same words, not different ones. The eye-dialect spellings though have confused people about them.
    – tchrist
    Feb 12 at 20:44
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Spelling and pronunciation do not necessarily correspond to one another in English. This difference of spelling emerges in the early modern period.

Victuals (OED) has had a number of spellings in Middle English, usually with vit- or vyt-. These spellings were closer to the Anglo-Norman spelling vitaile. As Middle English spelling is largely phonetic, forms with vit- and vyt- were also pronounced with a /t/.

As English spelling began to standardize in the early modern period, sometimes spellings would change to reflect concerns beyond pronunciation, like perceived etymology. In this case, victual in spelling assimilated the spelling of an older Latin cognate (victus, food) while retaining the older pronunciation. These spellings are evident in lexicons as early as An Alveary or Triple Dictionary, in English, Latin, and French (John Baret, 1574):

  • Pertayning to meate or victual: also base: simple.

Meanwhile, the vit- form persisted and eventually became vittle. It appears in some early lexicons, like Richard Mulcaster's The First Part of the Elementary (1582) (vitail), but most lexicons thereafter default to vict-, and victual is the standard spelling in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary. Vittle was preserved as a dialectal usage, which was useful for representing nonstandard speakers or informal usage in writing:

I must confess your wine and vittle / I was too hard upon a little (Jonathan Swift, "Stella at Wood Park," 1723.)

He was drunk, and weaving about in his saddle; he was over fifty year old, and had a very red face. Everybody yelled at him and laughed at him and sassed him, and he sassed back, and said he’d attend to them and lay them out in their regular turns, but he couldn’t wait now because he’d come to town to kill old Colonel Sherburn, and his motto was, “Meat first, and spoon vittles to top off on.” (Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885)

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7

Is there a distinction between “victuals” and “vittles” that exists in writing but not in speech? I think the short answer is yes. However, it's not a difference in the connotation of that single word, the way there's a distinction between, say, "terse" and "curt." These two spellings belong to completely different registers.

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.

Right. Except that there's another difference:

Victual can be a verb, synonymous with "provision." Victual, victuals, victualled, victualling. We see this verb form in three of your four example sentences. I claim that these writers had no choice, because...

Vittles is only ever a plural/mass noun, as far as I'm concerned. *Vittle, *vittles, *vittled, *vittling. ("What are you doing with that knife, Herr Wagner?")

You can victual your ship or your army, but you cannot "vittle" it. Load up the chuck wagon with vittles, yes. *Vittle the chuck wagon, no.

You can invite your epicurean acquaintance to victual with you (come on over! we'll tear a bird together!), but you cannot invite them to "vittle" with you. Chow down on some tender vittles, yes. *Vittle on chicken wings and beer, no.

Basically, "vittles" is a noun for cowboys; "victual" is a verb for military historians, a noun for Ren Faire attendees, and both for pretentious gastronauts.

N.B.: There is no non-loaded spelling of this word. If you want to refer to "vittles" without sounding like a cowboy, you don't write "victuals"; you write "food"!

By the way, How is "victualling" pronounced? — I didn't know this myself. I would have guessed "vittling" and "viktyueling" with about equal probability, tending toward the latter (and wrong) pronunciation.

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  • Pretty sure it either rhymes with fiddling or with purple. :)
    – tchrist
    Feb 15 at 13:31
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This seems to be an American vs. British English issue.

For one thing, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't have an entry for vittles, though it does for victuals.

For another, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), there are 126 hits for victuals and 117 for vittles.

In contrast, in the British National Corpus (BNC), there are 25 hits for victuals and none for vittles.

As far as your question about whether there is any difference in meaning, you basically answered your own question: no, there is no difference in meaning, but there might one of register, namely, vittles is more informal and humorous.

Vittles not a deliberate misspelling of victuals

There is some suggestion in the comments and the other answers that vittles is a deliberate misspelling of victuals that matches the pronunciation of the latter more closely. However, the following note from Merriam-Webster would seem to dispute that (link; scroll down):

If you're hungry for the story behind victual, get ready to dig into a rich and fulfilling history. The word derives via Middle English and Anglo-French from the Latin noun victus, meaning "nourishment" or "way of living." Victus derives from the verb vivere, which means "to live" and which is the source of a whole smorgasbord of other English words like vital, vivid, and survive. It's also the root of viand, another English word referring to food. There's also vittles, a word that sounds like it might be an alteration of the plural victuals but which actually entered English a century before victual.

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  • I again have déjà dit! The entire point of using aye-dialick like this (meaning "words that are deliberately misspelled but properly pronounced") is because this way the writer "indicates that the character's speech overall is dialectal, foreign, or uneducated". So for example: “We wuz skinny cuzza dey’d alwayz gave us widdle enuf viddles to keep us alives."
    – tchrist
    Feb 12 at 18:32
  • 1
    @tchrist According to Merriam-Webster, vittles is not a deliberate misspelling of victuals. See the quote I just added to my answer, above. Feb 12 at 18:58
  • Right. It's funny, but whatever I'm confused about here seems to be eluding this generous discussion. I see that you're contracting tchrist, but I don't think that you're contradicting me. The situation of two correct spellings, with one sound and meaning, but where one spelling is used playfully to evoke the supposed language of cowboys, is apparently unique to this case and just does not make sense to me. How does speech allow Pat Conroy's mother to recognize which spelling was used? That Merriam-Webster quotation is where my troubles began. I quoted it in the original question.
    – Chaim
    Feb 12 at 19:07
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    @Chaim Ah, yes, I thought I saw it quoted in your question, but then I couldn't find it…. and now I see it again. Now back to Pat Conroy. I seem to be missing something (again). The mother doesn't spell it, of course. She merely says it. The spelling is done only by the writer/narrator. And the writer/narrator knows that the father is using the 'cowboy' term, so that's the spelling that appears in text. If you want, at the time the mother says Vittles?, she doesn't have enough information to know whether it's vittles or victuals. But the writer/narrator does. Feb 12 at 19:20
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    @Chaim (Maybe pardner is a more standard example than nolij.) A couple of things to keep in mind. 1. victuals and vittles are, for most people, not very common words. In fact, many people would have heard ˈvi-​tᵊlz only in Western movies (and saw vittles only in Western novels). Western movies somehow decided that cowboys liked that word (I don't know if that had any basis in historical fact, but that is actually irrelevant for our purposes). Feb 12 at 20:04
1

OED entry is only for "victual(s)", "vittles" does not have an entry. (The victual entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1917).)

The result is "vittles" is the correct pronunciation of victuals, and thus vittles is to victuals as nolij is to knowledge: a phonetic representation, although 'vittles' is more readily accepted.

victual, n.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈvɪtl/, U.S. /ˈvɪd(ə)l/

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Old French vitaile, -aille (Old French also vitale , -alle, vittalle , victaille ) feminine < late Latin victuālia , neuter plural of post-classical Latin victuālis , < victus food, sustenance: (...) The variant Old French and modern French form victuaille has been assimilated to the Latin original, and a similar change in spelling has been made in English, while the pronunciation still represents the forms vittel , vittle.

Forms: (OE and most ME omitted) 1500s–1600s, 1700s–1800s dialect vittle (1600s victle), 1800s dialect fittle, wittle. ε. 1500s wyttuel, wittual, 1600s vittual, 1700s vitual; 1500s victuayle, Scottish wictuale, victuale, victwale, victuel,victuell, Middle English–1600s victuall (1500s wictuall, wictwall), 1500s vyctual, 1500s– victual

2.a. plural. Articles of food; supplies, or various kinds, of provisions; in later use esp. articles of ordinary diet prepared for use.

α.

1607 T. Dekker & J. Webster Famous Hist. Thomas Wyat sig. C3 Good victailes makes good blood.

c1616 R. C. Times' Whistle (1871) vi. 2695 Which I paide.., Because they should not think I came to sharke Only for vittailes.

δ.

1554–9 in T. Wright Songs & Ballads Philip & Mary (1860) (Roxb.) 12 *And dear cheape of vittels withe the thowe hast brought To the towne. * 1892 ‘Q’ I saw Three Ships vi. 106 And so say I, wi' all these vittles cryin' out to be ate.

ε.

1523 T. Cromwell Speech to Parl. in R. B. Merriman Life & Lett. T. Cromwell (1902) I. 39 As for victuaylys in our waye we shuld be sure none to fynde.

1840 T. Hood Up Rhine 201 It seems to me a very odd proceeding for..a town to lay a tax on the persons who bring it victuals.

1866 C. Kingsley Hereward the Wake I. xv. 275 There was..decking of the hall in the best hangings..; cooking of victuals, broaching of casks.

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  • But I don't think I've ever before seen anyone write "nolij." Why would anyone do that, if not to transcribe some change in sound? Whereas I've seen "vittles" many times, although apparently not to transcribe any change in sound.
    – Chaim
    Feb 12 at 17:55
  • I have déjà dit! The entire point of using aye-dialick like this (meaning "words that are deliberately misspelled but properly pronounced") is because this way the writer "indicates that the character's speech overall is dialectal, foreign, or uneducated".
    – tchrist
    Feb 12 at 18:28
  • @Chaim English spelling is only loosely connected to pronunciation: who would have thought that the surname "Featherstonehaugh" was pronounced "Fanshore"? Why do we commonly see "phonetic" spellings in direct speech? Why is "one" not pronounced to rhyme with "lone"? Spelling mainly fossilised from the 18th century around the well-meaning, educated class's version of what English should be - and if that meant preference given to the Latin form - so be it. However the rest simply kept saying the word as they had always done.
    – Greybeard
    Feb 12 at 18:36
  • @tchrist♦ I guess this is what Kate Bunting was describing, in her comment on my question. So apparently you two see this point, though I cannot see it. But when someone said "vittles" to Pat Conroy's mother, how did she know that he was not saying "victuals"? Is it because his speech overall is dialectal, foreign or uneducated? It seems to me that either (1) she objected to the word regardless of spelling or (2) she thought that pronunciation distinguished "vittles" from "vicutals."
    – Chaim
    Feb 12 at 18:57
  • 1
    @linguisticturn (It goes without saying that the Merriam-Webster is not infallible, either.) MW - Mostly Wrong :)
    – Greybeard
    Feb 13 at 15:23

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