Desiccate has the “honor” of being among the most commonly misspelled words in English. I think the mistaken *dessicate is due in part to people’s memory that the word in question has either two s‘s and one c or two c‘s and one s; add to that the many familiar English verbs that end in -cate, with a single c (e.g. fabricate, lubricate, educate, indicate, domesticate), and you’ve got your common misspelling. Probably the only thing that keeps desiccate from being misspelled more often than it already is is the fact that it’s a fancy word, so the people most prone to misspelling in general will never even use it.

The verb desiccate,whose Spanish cognate is desecar, comes from Latin desiccatus, the past participle of desiccare, created from the prefix de-, used as an intensifier, and siccus ‘dry,’ which Spanish speakers recognize as the ancestor of seco. In addition to desecar, Spanish has the simpler and more common secar, which frequently appears as the reflexive secarse ‘to dry out.’ Corresponding to desecar/desiccate is the abstract noun desecación/desiccation. Spanish also has the abstract nouns sequedad ‘aridity, dryness’ and sequía ‘drought.’ A desecante/desiccant is ‘a substance that absorbs moisture and is therefore used as a drying agent.’ Spanish also has the simpler secante (not to be confused with the unrelated secante/secant of geometry).

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    May 29, 2014 @ 21:13:31

    And then there are those of us who happily throw “desiccate” around like confetti, getting it wrong every time. Every time. On a hunch, I used that ever-so-helpful Omnisearch function to go exploring, and sure enough, there it was: “dessicate”. Six times. Good grief.

    Well, that’s all fixed up. I like to think of it as a bit of renovation for my blog entries.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 29, 2014 @ 21:49:20

      Maybe we can scale up the proverb from “once bitten, twice shy” to “half a dozen times written, a dozen times shy,” even if you haven’t been at all shy about owning up to the error and promptly fixing it. Thus does the Search button keep us honest.


  2. shoreacres
    Jun 01, 2014 @ 08:23:39

    A similar word popped up in Dr. Goodword’s post this morning: susurrous, derived from Latin susurrus, or “whisper.” The good Doctor even made a point of making the point by reminding us, “Just remember the spelling rule: one S, two Rs”.

    I’ve used “susurration.” As it turns out, I spelled it correctly, but I also have a vague recollection of looking it up, just to be sure. And then there’s tintinnabulation. There are some good words, but these are great words.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 01, 2014 @ 08:58:59

      With susurro Spanish speakers have the advantage, actually two advantages. First, there is no ss in modern spelling. Second, rr is pronounced differently from r, so a Spanish speaker who hears the word susurro knows it has rr in it.

      As for tintinnabulation, it incorporates the same root as tinnitus. I first encountered tintinnabulation in Poe’s “The Bells”:

      I’ve also visited his cottage in the Bronx.


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