(Postings beget other postings.)

People have been writing me to say that at first they misread abutilon in my posting on this plant as ablution. In Google+, Robert Coren called this an “anagrammatic” misreading; this isn’t literally so — people aren’t going to misread glean as angel, for instance — but it’s right in spirit. Three things are crucial: the status of abutilon as a very rare word, one that many people don’t know at all and others see very infrequently; the relationship between the spellings ABUTILON and ABLUTION; and the frequency of TION as word element in English.

On the spellings: They’re not very different. They share three subparts:

1: AB  2: UTI  3: ON

and differ only in that ABUTILON has an L between parts 2 and 3, while in ABLUTION has the L between parts 2 and 3:


in ABLUTION it comes between parts 1 and 2:


So ABUTILON > ABLUTION can be seen as the metathesis of part 2 and L. And, significantly, this metathesis moves the L from the onset of part 3 to the onset of part 2 — from one position to a structurally parallel one.

Then, if you don’t know the word abutilon, or see it very infrequently, your language processor is ikely to assume (tacitly, unconsciously) that ABUTILON is some kind of error and will try to interpret the spelling as something familiar.

People’s language processors are remarkably forgiving, and that’s a good thing. Almost all production errors escape conscious notce and are silently “corrected” by perceivers to what was likely intended. (This is what makes people who attend to the surface of what they read and hear and insist on constantly correcting others such annoying pests.)

In this case, abutilon, though well-formed orthographically (ABUTILON) and phonologically (/əbyútəlàn/), is an odd duck. But it has the ingredients of the incredibly common orthographic element -TION (representing the abstract-noun suffix /ʃən/), except for that intervening L, so if you’re trying to make sense of the spelling, you can move the L from one onset to an earlier one, reuniting the parts of -TION, and in the process getting an actual English word, ABLUTION.

Of course, it quickly turns out not to make sense in the context, so you have to recalibrate. But ablution is an entirely reasonable, even very likely, misreading.


3 Responses to “Misreading”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    “Robert Coren called this an “anagrammatic” misreading; this isn’t literally so…”

    Why not? I didn’t intend to imply a probability of misreading one anagram for another generally (as in your “glean — angel” example), but merely to note that, apart from being an easy misreading for the reasons you describe, the two words are in fact exact anagrams.

  2. More misreading | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] recently posted on the misreading of abutilon as ablution, an entirely explicable mistake. But some misreadings are […]

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