When uncertain about something, Chaucer, in the 14th century, would “doute.” William the Conquerer, 300 years earlier, would “dute” or “dote.” So why do we now spell it “doubt?” Since we don’t pronounce the “b,” where did it come from?
Answer: From a false assumption. After the Renaissance, linguistic scholars believed all languages were derived from Latin, and in Latin, “doubt” was “dubitare” or “dubium,” depending upon part of speech. So these, ahem, scholars said, “Look, there’s a ‘b’ in Latin. Since English comes from Latin, oughtn’t we spell the word with a ‘b’?”
Which is just what they did, even though they didn’t pronounce it, even then. And now we’re stuck with it.
What these folks didn’t realize was that all languages are NOT derived from Latin. One of the languages that isn’t is our very own English, which is a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Hence, the “b” was never necessary. “Doute” would have worked just fine.
But wait, there’s a complication that makes those ancient scholars look a little less wacky. Because of the Norman Invasion in 1066, 60% of modern English words are derived from French (because, see, the Normans were French)–and you guessed it, French IS a Romantic language. So the Latin derivation, and therefore the “b,” should stand, right? Nope. By the time William the Conqueror started stomping around England, French had broken away from Latin. In Old French, “doubt” was “dute” or “dote.” The poor unwanted “b” had already skulked off to the home for discarded letters.
So the scholars got it wrong anyway. Makes you wonder what else they told us that wasn’t true.
Like “debt,” for instance…