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We are lucky to have a French owned bakery nearby and on a Sunday morning, the dilemma becomes whether to buy croissants, quiche  or bread.  It was when I was trying to decide between a loaf of provencal or sourdough that I was struck by the sign above the bread: sandwitch white, sandwitch wholemeal.


Mistakes are not deliberate, not done to annoy, rather they are a window into the understanding of the writer. Presumably none in the shop have spotted the miscue – else why leave it there? Perhaps on the other hand this miscue has been pointed out many times, but I wonder what has been said. What explanation has been offered? For here’s the good news that’s so often denied to students or exaggerated and distorted in emails about the whackiness of English spelling: English orthography is a highly coherent, highly regular system for native speakers.  This is not to say that this miscue could not have been made by a native speaker. Rather, the writer of the sign has perhaps recognized a pattern concerning the phoneme /tʃ/. However, there is more to this word than meets the eye –  or more accurately  more to this word than meets the ear! Read on dear reader, and we will hear of toponyms, eponyms, gambling, high passion, murder and even an elephant!

So where to begin with a student  or writer perhaps trained to only ever consider what is heard as the way to construct a word?

Begin with compounds

In the above representation of *sandwitch, there is an implication that it is a compound word. (In fact it is a compound, but not a compound of the sort suggested by *sandwitch).  If the bakery was selling witches made of sand (and why would they?) then this would be a valid construction- a compound formed from two nouns <sand+witch>.

Stan Carey notes a common pattern in English compounds: ‘… the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.’  Yet this construction <*sand+witch> makes very little sense in the context of a bakery. The sandwich that we consume is not a compounded from the free base element witch. One rather hopes not a grain of sand is in sight, nor put together by magic from witches!

Yet surprisingly sandwich is a compound <sand+wich>. In order to understand this we must consider the place and the person who had an impact on this word.

There is a place called Sandwich:

Toponyms refer to place names- from Greek roots τόπος: topos: place and Greek ὀνύματ- , ὄνυμα onymat-, onyma: name. Toponyms form a surprisingly large group of common words in English – from food: hamburger, cheddar, champagne to clothes: jeans, bikini, to the names of dogs Alsatian and spaniel. And that’s merely the tip of a highly productive word forming process.

Sandwich is located in Kent. Morphologically it is constructed from two base elements <sand +wich>. Both elements are free.

Wich/wyche and wick

The O.E.D. notes that wich is a differentiated variant of wick – an abode, or dwelling place.’The original meaning may have been the group of buildings connected with a salt-pit. The chief names of salt-making towns in which the word occurs are Droitwich (formerly Wich) in Worcestershire, Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich in Cheshire.’  This Old English word was an early borrowing of Latin vicus, meaning “place”, and by the 11th century was used in place names associated with salt production  including Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Leftwich (a small village south of Northwich), and Droitwich in Worcestershire. ‘Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Droitwich were noted in the Domesday Book, “an indication of the significance of the salt-working towns in the economy of the region, and indeed of the country”. Sandwich thus has a denotation of a trading centre on sand.

Sandwich was one of the cinque ports – ports established in 1155 by Royal Charter whereby ships would be ready for use as needed by the Crown. In return they were exempt from:

“tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team,blodwit (the right to punish shedders of blood) and fledwit (the right to punish those who were seized in an attempt to escape from justice), pillory and and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce( the breaking into or violation of a man’s mund or property in order to errect banks or dikes as defence against the sea), waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.”

(Exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls, punish those who shed blood or flee justice, punish minor offences, detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.)(Wikipedia)

Sandwich is now 3 km (1.9 mi) from the sea and no longer a port.

Sandwich and elephants

Despite the rise and decline of cinque ports, raids from the Danes and French, plagues, the shifting sands and changing coastline, a curious moment in the history of the Port of Sandwich stands out.  It was here where a captive elephant landed in 1255.

The elephant, a gift from France’s King Louis IX, was to be delivered to the English monarch Henry III and to be installed in his menagerie at the Tower of London. As the elephant was given in France, it became the troublesome duty of English officials to transport the creature across the Channel. ‘ The rolls show that the sheriff of Kent claimed £6 17s. 5d. for the transportation of the elephant. More than £22 was spent by the sheriff of London on constructing the special accommodation for the elephant at the Tower and the bill for the upkeep of the animal and its keeper for the nine months from December 1255 to September 1256 came to £24 14s. 3½d.’ (Parker Library).

This elephant image by Mathew Paris is from the Chronica Maiora,St Albans, c.1250) and includes of the figure of Henry de Flor’, the animal’s ‘magister bestie’ (keeper). Paris included the elephant’s keeper to show the animal’s size. (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

The journey through Kent was unremarkable, at least in so far as an elephant in medieval England can be, until a bull in a nearby field launched an attack on the large lumbering royal gift. Apparently the elephant tossed the attacking bull into the air killing it instantly!  ‘Matthew Paris’s bestiary, explains that while in residence at the Tower of London, the elephant dined on prime cuts of beef and expensive red wine.’ Sadly, the elephant died in 1257, merely two years after its installation at the Tower of London menagerie, a death brought on from drinking too much wine. The elephant was buried in the Tower Bailey. Later, on orders from the king, the bones were rather mysteriously exhumed and instructed to be given ‘to the sacristan of Westminster Abbey ‘for doing with them what the king had instructed him’. Read more here.

What’s in a Name?

Eponyms (‘ ἐπώνυμος (a.) given as a name, (b.) giving one’s name to a thing or person from Greek ἐπί : epi :upon + ὄνομα: onoma: name’). Eponyms often commemorate the inventor and so it is with the sandwich. Earl of Sandwich is the 17th century title for the peerage of England and associated with Sandwich in Kent. It was created in 1660 for Admiral Sir Edward Montagu.

It’s been popular etymologically to ascribe the creation of the edible sandwich to John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). In response to his desire to remain seated at the gambling table without the inconvenient distraction of pausing to eat, the tale claims he ordered meat to be put between slices of bread. A simple requirement, done throughout the ages no doubt – consider the Hilel sandwich. However, it is the name Sandwich forever attached to this bready snack, due to French writer Pierre -Jean Grosley, who in his observations of English life ‘Londres’ (translated  to A Tour to London published in 1772) noted:

‘A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.’ (History of the sandwich)

Edward Gibbon , historian and Member of Parliament, wrote in a diary entry in 1762, ‘I dined at the Cocoa Tree… That respectable body..affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty..of the first men in the kingdom,..supping at little tables..upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich’.(O.E.D.)

So who was this namesake of the sandwich?

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792) painted by Thomas Gainsborough, in 1780. One wonders if Gainsborough was offered a light refreshment of tea and sandwiches whilst painting the Earl.

Lord Montague married Dorothy Fane and with her had a son John, Viscount Hinchingbrooke (1743 – 1814), who later succeeded as the 5th Earl. However, rather than a state of happiness and continued devotion, Dorothy became ill and ultimately ‘mad’. It was at this time that the Earl of Sandwich began an affair with an opera singer Martha Ray. Ray and the Earl had at least five and perhaps as many as nine children.

However, bliss and filial happiness eluded the Earl. In April 1779, Martha Ray was murdered in the foyer of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden by a jealous suitor, James Hackman, Rector of Wiveton. Sandwich never recovered from his grief. The first reports offered a heart wrenching account where all ‘players’ appeared as victims:—’Sandwich, Ray and Hackman—were portrayed as victims. Sandwich was a reformed rake deprived of the woman he loved, Ray was murdered at the hands of a young man who would not take no for an answer, and Hackman was an upstanding young man driven to a mad act by the power of love’ (Brewer). Read The Fatal Triangle and more here.

Retiring in 1782 and regardless of the number of posts the 4th Earl of Sandwich held during his career, it was his incompetence and corruption that was the focus of his political opponents. Many suggested that his epitaph should read: “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.” (Wikipedia)

Sandwich is also remembered in place names. The Earl of Sandwich was a great supporter of Captain James Cook and in appreciation, Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him, as well as Montague Island off the south east coast of Australia, the South Sandwich Islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean and Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska. However, his name today on everybody’s lips is in the form of food. Sandwiches are portable, require no cutlery and can be transported easily, eaten anywhere.

Even Jane Austen consumed sandwiches! 1800 J. Austen Let. 25 Oct. (1995) 49 At Oakley Hall we did a great deal—eat some sandwiches all over mustard [etc.]. (O.E.D.)



There are so many ways to pursue this miscue*sandwitch in the classroom. Miscues are interesting and rarely just what one learner, the author of the miscue, needs to know. A few students in my class undoubtedly would have stumbled in the same manner as the sign painter of the bakery. However all students would benefit from the following inquiries.

The homophones <which> and <witch>. Why does one have a digraph and the other a trigraph? (Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 2B)

<ch> <tch>: which grapheme and under what circumstances? (Real Spelling, Kit 2B)

<-s> or <-es> which plural suffix, when? (Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 1 B)

Collect toponyms and tell the story of one.

Collect eponyms and tell the tale of one.

Collect compounds and tell the story of one explaining the graphemes, morphemes and etymology.(Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 1H)

The inquiries above give a glimpse into the possibilities of spelling, the scientific pursuit of orthography. Spelling (word inquiry) is cognitive. It is more than lists of words to be mastered. Spelling is about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology. There is no word better than another to study, for in examining one word, you discover principles and patterns that apply to thousands. As I experienced in this bready exploration triggered by a miscue, all words tell a story and in uncovering the tale you may find places you never knew existed, a time when an elephant lumbered through Kent to London, a hungry but gambling obsessed Earl, love, murder and food. For when we examine a word, we are also lucky to catch a glimpse of a time, place and the lives of people.

Go beyond labelling words as right or wrong- celebrate the opportunity of a miscue. Word inquiry deepens our understanding of what it is to be human. Ask questions about the structure of words, the choice of graphemes and dig to the roots.  Inevitably you’ll find a delicious tale, or else I’ll eat my words!