Sceptic vs. skeptic

  • In most of their senses, there is no difference between skeptic and sceptic. Skeptic is the preferred spelling in American and Canadian English, and sceptic is preferred in the main varieties of English from outside North America. This extends to all derivatives, including sceptical/skeptical and scepticism/skepticism. There is an exception, though: In reference to some 21st-century strains of scientific skepticism, writers and publications from outside North America often use the spellings with the k.

    The word comes from the French sceptique,1 which in French is pronounced sep-teek. It has taken several spellings since coming to English in the 16th century, but the modern British spelling was settled by the early 19th century. The development of the spelling is a natural result of English speakers altering the French pronunciation with the first-syllable sound. The is silent in many but by no means all English words containing sc, but writers outside North America never got on board with skeptic—that is, until recently, as the sk- usage appears to be growing outside the United States, perhaps with discussion of climate “skeptics” in the media. Moreover, British and Australian skeptical societies—groups that come together to promote science and critical thinking on subjects such as the paranormal—often used the sk- spelling.


    For example, these publications from outside the U.S. use sceptic:

    A leading climate sceptic patronised by the oil billionaire Koch brothers faced a potential investigation today. [The Guardian]

    The days when you could plausibly call yourself a sceptic while refusing to countenance withdrawal from the EU are over. [Telegraph]

    But when it comes to The Farmer Wants a Wife, it’s really hard to keep the sceptic fires burning. [Sydney Morning Herald]


    And these North American news organizations use skeptic:

    A prominent Canadian climate scientist is suing a leading climate skeptic for libel. [New York Times]

    Bilingualism skeptic Jim Cougle contends the hearing should be public. [CBC]

    The eye, of course, has long been a favorite example for both Darwin proponents and skeptics because of its intricacy. [Forbes]


    1. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology



    1. It may sound hopelessly pro-American, but the “SCE… “or more generally /sc[ei]/ form  is far more often pronounced with a silent C:

      scientologist (etc)

      Words such as “sceptic” are almost alone among the c-pronounced-as-k words.  Even the ambiguous looking “scion” is pronounced “SY-un” rather than “SKEE-un”.  I’ve noted that a small population of especially learned British speakers will “almost drop the C”, in the same way that they drop the “c-as-k” plosive from the pronunciation of schedule (as “SHED-jool”). 

      I’m also not aware that there is a etymological explanation for “sceptic” standing as a pronunciation outlier.  It almost appears (to me) to be “just another British-ism” that stems from the 18th century spelling-and-pronunciation revisions to Modern English. 

      Here, here for wide-eyed skeptics.

    2. As a Brit living in Australia I would use “sceptic” but as this the first two letters could be pronounced “s” (as in sceptre) rather than “sk” (as in skin) I think I’ll use “skeptic” from here on.

      • And what about scan, scam, Scot, scat, scum, scabbard, scrub, scale, scribble, scaw, etc.? There is no shortage of sc- words pronounced with a hard c, albeit most are sca- or scr- rather than sce- or sci-.

      • Also looks like septic. I too from Oz and thought skeptic was – scientific method to remain objective and disinterested,

        whereas sceptical means – not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations

    3. “Skeptic” is widely used in the UK now to denote an advocate of the philosophy of “scientific scepticism”. I think this is useful in distinguishing between somebody who embraces ‘skepticism’ as a virtue (i.e. a critical appraisal of all the available evidence) from somebody who is merely ‘sceptical’ in the colloquial sense without necessarily analysing the evidence.
      This spelling is also in recognition of the global nature of the modern Skeptical movement.
      C.f. two UK institutions: ‘The Skeptic’ magazine and the ‘Skeptics In the Pub’ network of social groups.

      • It took us a few months, but we have updated the post to reflect this.

      • i would have placed that the other way around, with the K indicating a sort of pop scepticism, a crude layperson’s version of it as american english is a crude version of english. for americans “scepticism” could actually be a portmanteau of science and skepticism.

        • I think it is easier than that; the examples of a hard ‘c’ are followed by ‘a’ or ‘o’ or a consonant. Seems we need the ‘k’ to make the hard ‘c’ when the following vowel is ‘e’ or ‘i’.

        • Paul Laroquod says:

          Even a year later, someone has to point out that American English is not a ‘crude’ version of British English. That’s utter nonsense.

          • Egan Penney says:

            how do you figure that?

            • Paul Laroquod says:

              Having extra silent letters nobody ever pronounces does not make you more intelligent or sophisticated. It does not make a language better or less ‘crude’. Not only is spelling completely arbitrary and unrelated to the quality of language, but American and British spelling are 99.9999% identical. To talk as if one is ‘cruder’ than another is just ignorant – get off your high horse! P.S. I’m not even American; I’m Canadian. I just don’t like the kind of ignorant elitism that passes for intelligence among pedants.

            • Just another reason I like Canadians!

        • as american english is a crude version of english, said the person whose handle on righteous English somehow managed to bypass using even a SINGLE capital letter in the conventional orthographic sense. Irony is sweet when the bigot is hoist by his own petard.


        • Boa McXcat says:

          Oh, please… Or should I say, ‘pleaze’?

    4. Gilbert Tang Jr. says:

      The Economist via Twitter this morning (5/2/13): @TheEconomist: A new crop of apps and websites attempt to convince sceptical farmers that computers may be better than their brains

    5. The word “skeptic” actually comes from Ancient Greek: σκέπτομαι (sk’eptomai) or σκέπτικοσ (sk’eptikos). Given this, the British spelling is a corruption of the Greek (via Latin and French), and the American spelling is closer to the original.

      • Brian Kelly says:

        It isn’t a ‘corruption’; orthogtraphically here was no ‘c’ in Greek and no ‘k’ in Latin (except in loanwords like Kalendae), but the sounds are identical, so Gk kappa was rendered by Lat. c. In the Romance languages, c for I or e became a sibilant.

    6. SPLASH! magazine says:

      the word may come via the French, but as skepticism is a Greek concept from the fourth century BC, I’d be inclined to prefer the k

      • Brian Kelly says:

        Do you think Sokrates was a skeptic? Is there skope for change? Greek kappa was rendered ‘c’ in Latin and thus into French and into Middle and Modern English. The innovation is unnecessary.

        • “Do you think Socrates was a skeptic?“, well actually, yes I do. But that’s a philosophical debate!

          The points others have made regarding the nominal English language orthographic rules is actually pretty good guidance.

          SCA = skaSCE = seeSCI = sieSCO = skoSCU = sku

          This is very probably why even the British “bend the orthography” when the context becomes a wee bit contentious: “scientific skepticism”, instead of the scepticism. And, oddly enough (or perhaps not), as an American reader of English, I tend to “sound in my mind” the sibilant ss when I see words like

          scenic, scent, scepter, scenographer, scepis, scenario, and sceloglaux

          as well as the internal -sce- words: (of which there are many)

          accrescence, acquiesce, acquiescence, adolescent, ascend, ascendance, ascendant (etc), asceticism, bioluminescence, candescence, coalesce, cognoscenti, condescend (etc) (ad naus)

          One particular word though exhibits what I call the “tension of higher order orthographic convention over more rigorous historic derivation”:

          Damascus and damascene

          No one ever says dam-a-skeen. Yet, by rights of parentage and latinate origins … it should be.

          Nope – I disagree that “sceptic” should be argued for out of principle. I argue instead that it is perfectly acceptable to have it in its more-Greek form. Skeptic. Skeptical. Skepticism. Right alongside skelter, sketch, and other easily skewered words.

          Finally – not to kick a dead horse too vigorously – but what’s the deal with “schedule”, anyway? Unless you were born with a bar of soap in your mouth, regardless of the side of The Pond one learns their English, a “schema” = SKEE-mah. “schematic” = “skeh-MA-tik”. Even a “scherzo” = SKAIRT-zoe … so why on Earth do the majority of Brits insist that schedule is “SHED-jewl”?


          • Brian Kelly says:

            Hello, Goatguy – I will attempt a reply but I am no expert on this subject. 1. I don’t know if ‘sceptic’ entered English via French ‘sceptique’ or more directly as a coining from Latin ‘scepticus’. It certainly was never pronounced ‘septic’ for obvious reasons, i.e. the c didn’t quiesce. Lots of words that now end in -ic used to end in -ick or even – icke (‘Musick’, Physick etc) until this was regularised into -ic. I don’t know (perhaps you do?) of earlier spellings (skeptick?) in the 17th and 18th centuries. 2. As regards ‘schedule’, this seems to have entered English via Old French ‘cedule’ with the spelling ‘regularised’ by historically-minded orthographers. Given its Gallic origin, it doesn’t appear that the word was ever pronounced this side of the pond with a sk- sound. Maybe ‘sh’ is a compromise for the newer strange spelling. 3. Despite being of the British Commonwealth, I usually think American spellings (honor, color etc), though strange to my eyes, make more sense. But I do not like the American preference (underwritten by OED!) for -ize rather than -ise. It’s unnecessary.

            • My compliments to you: a perfectly gentlemanly and carefully regarded reply!

              [1] I am aware of the purported entry into English of “sceptic” via the Greek → Latin → French → English route, where κ → c in the Grk-to-Lat transform.

              My point though is that for the most part, English is a hybrid of “remembering the past”, “leaning towards original-roots” and “regularizing spelling to transparent-but-less-ambivalently interpreted ideals”. I will use this idea ahead, be forewarned!

              [2] I wasn’t aware of the French ‘cedule’ connection, but there you are. The problem today is that the divergence of the pronunciation of schedule now really must keep the accepted orthography. American-types have a ‘sk’ in there, whereas the British sphere leans towards ‘sh’. Its a hopeless mess, this one.

              [3] Appreciating your Commonwealth objectiveness, we can agree the the “-our” tail is a wan frippery, a pretense at retaining a decidedly Gallic orthographic origin for the word. I would dare-to-say that few American Redneck types would be confused by the inserted ‘u’; likewise, you’ve pointed out that the missing ‘u’ of American orthography doesn’t really trip up your internal narrative when reading.

              However, we will disagree on the “-ize” and “-ise” system, since it is nearly arbitrary for the -ise stem to be hetereophonic. Realise (realize) we would recognize on either side of the Atlantic with the ‘z’ sound at the end, as we would for most of ’em.

              Then there are those darn froggy words that break the basic rule:

              AniseCamiseCeriseChamiseChemiseConcise ← a common one…EboniseExpertise ← another common one…GriseParadisePromise ← yet anotherPremise ← …SiseTortoise ( I didn’t include other vowel-i-s-e words…)TurquoiseTreatise ← used to be common! Now, not so much soValiseVise ← the common tool

              Now … when I did a limited search, there are 1,077 words that non-trivially utilize the “ise” ending. This list, above, is clearly in the minority (except for the fact there there are a few common words in there, vexingly).

              The OED for some reason has taken to the idea that the “-ize” ending is perhaps easier to explain to students of the language. I am perhaps more on your side of this one, though again, I think some of the words nominally capable of bearing the -ise ending … can look a tad contrived compared to the -ize form:

              vulcanise … vulcanize tilise … utilizeterrorise … terrorizesocialise … socializerevitalise … revitalize

              Again – I can certainly “read ’em” just fine on either side of the argument. The only thing is, these rather old American eyes have gotten used to the -ize construction, since the ‘z’ certainly suggests that it should be pronounced as a ‘z’ and not an ‘s’.

              Thanks for listening to this old windbag wheeze forth a contentious mouse. I note that even the OED insidiously can’t make up its mind as to the endless succession of orthographic novation associated with the words that insist on having one of the many variations of -ough or -augh at the end.

              Although, borough, bough, breakthrough, clough, cough, dough, enough, hiccough, lough, laugh, plough, rough, slough, sough, thorough, through, though, tough, trough, saugh, waugh, faugh, haugh, …

              And we haven’t even added a T at the end!

              I do love our English language – and in defense of there being two perfectly acceptable orthographies (and some would say 3 or 4, if the variations that are coming rapidly at us from around the world by way of text-message idiocies are included), I would say it is this alone which makes English such a remarkable and remarkably successful language.

              Yours, GoatGuy

            • Brian Kelly says:

              Thanks for your kind and compendious reply from which I’ve learnt (learned?) a lot. Perhaps you know David Crystal’s great little book ‘Spell It Out’? He’s one of our finest scholars on the English language, and a very accessible writer. As I said, this subject of Her Majesty the Queen favors (!) a lot of American spellings, many of which I suppose were quite OK in the orthographically chaotic days of the 18th century, before the OED laid down the law here and Noah Webster for you. I would add the -se endings as well (defense etc) although I am not at all used to it – it makes sense (not sence!) for all the derivative words (defensive etc) that have the same ‘s’ sound. & that’s why I don’t like ‘z’ in -ise/-ize verbs: because the related adjectives usually end is -ist or -istic. If it’s objected that ‘s’ doesn’t usually sound like ‘z’ – well, it does in ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘his’, ‘hers’ ‘does’, ‘goes’ and other common – just about any verb that ends in a vowel for 3ps. But going back to ‘honour’ etc – one Commonwealth argument for this (and ‘centre’, ‘metre’ etc) is that it makes Canadian English and French more homogeneous – and what unites Canucks is good, eh?

            • Never heard the Canuck angle before, tho’ I appreciate it, the Northern Americans (LOL) being such a determinedly prickly-about-their-sovereignty lot.

              Your point about the Z/S choice – especially considering the number of very common words that are the vanguard for the rule that “some [aeiou]se constructions pronounce the /s/ as a /z/”. Powerful rule, that.

              And as you also say, [is] [was] [hers] [’tis] and the lot are /z/ terminated phonetically. Whereas [ibis] [walrus] [praxis] [Paris] [Otis] and so on miss that rule’s influence.

              Good day!GoatGuy

    7. How’s that spell-checker working for ya’ ? Ha!

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