Supersede: A Spelling Conundrum for the Ages

HarperCollins, the publisher of the Collins English Dictionary, once declared that supersede was the most misspelled word in the English language. The common misspelling is supercede.  "The city cannot supercede anything in their charter over the state," reads official West Virginia legislation, as reported by The Weirton Daily Times. A Google search of news articles from the last week returns dozens of articles that use supercede in their headlines and text. It's a spelling conundrum that has lasted for ages but goes deeper than a simple mistake.

Supersede, which means  "to cause to be set aside" or  "to displace in favor of another", was derived from two words: the Middle French superceder and the Latin supersedere. The spelling issue was part of the word's DNA. But supersede was the official spelling that made its way into dictionaries and English literature.

Despite the impression that supercede is incorrect, it still has its own dedicated page on Merriam-Webster's official website. It ranks in the top 20% of words searched on the site, and this variant of supersede has been around since the 1700s.

Many of us gravitate toward supercede because of other common words with similar pronunciation that end with the suffix ÔøΩ ÔøΩcede. Think intercede, precede, and concede. It's only natural to think supersede would be spelled the same way. This isn't due to a lack of knowledge about spelling. If anything, it's due to knowing the rules.

"The real spelling problems occur when people have learnt the rules or have a bit of knowledge, but make mistakes in how they apply this," Collins English Dictionary managing editor Ian Brookes told Daily Mail, in a 2008 interview.

Unlike etymology battles over a word's evolving definition, like the debate over nonplussed, the supersede question has a clear-cut answer. Spelling it with an ÔøΩ ÔøΩs is the only way. Supercede is incorrect, plain and simple. But the misspellings have happened so often, and for so long, that the conversation continues.

"It's quite true that supersede is a one-off," writes Virtual Linguist's Susan Harvey.  "There are just eight words in the Oxford English Dictionary ending in ÔøΩ ÔøΩsede and all but supersede are obsolete." There's no trick to remembering the correct spelling. Supersede, spelled with an ÔøΩ ÔøΩs, must simply be accepted as fact.

Though the incorrect spelling continues to show up in writing around the world and across the web, supercede will never supersede the original spelling of supersede.

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