Mollusckque - Mollusk vs Mollusc
by Gary Rosenberg
Malacologists and conchologists
often wonder whether "mollusk" or "mollusc"
is the correct or preferred spelling of the vernacular name
for the phylum Mollusca. A debate on the subject appeared in
Hawaiian Shell News from April to July of 1993. Stu Lillico
posed the question (April, p. 12), Dr. Robert Cowie (May, p.
4) stated that the American spelling "mollusk" was
a recent change from "mollusc" used elsewhere in the
world, and Richard E. Petit (July, p. 6) demonstrated that early
British and American authors both used the spelling "mollusk,"
contrary to general assumption. Independently, a similar debate
raged on the Mollusca discussion group on Internet from September
26 to October 6, 1993 (www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mologis/mollusca.html).
Attempting as usual to avoid undocumented opinions, Dr. Barry
Roth commented that to properly understand the significance
of the use of "mollusk" or "mollusc," we
need more information on the distribution of the two morphs
in time and space. I followed Barry's suggestion, posting to
the discussion group my observations and conclusions, which
form the basis of this article. I've also incorporated some
of Dick Petit's findings, and additional items I've discovered
The Oxford English Dictionary,
2nd edition (OED) in its entry for "mollusc," records
the first use in English as "mollusque" in 1783. The
entry also records the spelling "mollusk" in Penny
Cyclopedia vol. 14 in 1839; the first "mollusc" is
by F. Francis in his book Angling in 1867. So, on the basis
of priority in the OED, it appears that "mollusk"
is older than "mollusc." The first appearance of the
word mollusc in a book on angling, however, is suspicious, and
a quick browse through the stacks of my institution's library
found several earlier uses of "mollusc": T. Spencer
Cobbold, The Treasury of Natural History, or a popular dictionary
of zoology, 6th ed. (1862), D. M. Reese, Elements of Zoology,
or a natural history of the animals (1849); and G. B. Sowerby,
Jr., A Conchological Manual, p. 23 (1839). This leaves both
"mollusk" and "mollusc" dating from 1839.
"Mollusk" can be pushed back to 1837, however, in
the Penny Cyclopedia vol. 7 (p. 434, entry for Conchology).
I submitted my findings on "mollusk"
versus "mollusc" to the editors of the Oxford English
Dictionary, who replied that searching the CD ROM version of
their dictionary revealed quotations under other entries documenting
earlier uses of both spellings. "Mollusc" appears
in 1833 in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology III, p. 230,
and "mollusk" in 1836 in Robert B. Todd's Cyclopedia
of Anatomy and Physiology I, p. 712. Since then, I've found
"mollusk" in 1832, in Richard Owen's Memoir on the
Pearly Nautilus, p. 29, where it is a direct translation of
"mollusque" from an article by Cuvier. So, at the
moment, "mollusk" (1832) has one year's priority on
"mollusc" (1833), but earlier instances of both might
yet be found.
The word "mollusk"
probably was coined in response to growing acceptance of Cuvier's
classification as set forth in his great work Regnè Animal
(1817) which expanded the concept of "Mollusca" to
include the bivalves and gastropods with the cephalopods. Possibly
the spelling "mollusk" and "mollusc" have
independent derivations. "Mollusk" as used by Owen
(1832) is clearly an Anglicization of "mollusque,"
whereas "mollusc" could be a noun form of "molluscous"
or a vernacular singular for the plural "mollusca."
The only source I examined that used "mollusque" as
an English word was Isaac Lea (1828, Transactions of the American
Philosophical Society III, p. 260), again taken straight from
and "mollusc" both date from the 1830s, "mollusc"
is the rarer word at least into the 1870s. Almost all British
conchologists used the spelling "mollusk" until the
1860s: Swainson (1840), A Treatise on Conchology; Brown (1844),
Illustrations of the Recent Conchology of Great Britain and
Ireland; Johnston (1850), An Introduction to Conchology; Forbes
& Hanley (1853), A History of British Mollusca; Reeve (1860),
Elements of Conchology; Jeffreys (1867), British Conchology;
Woodward (1851 ["mollusk" p. 31, 36, 44; "mollusc"
on p. 18]), Manual of the Mollusca. Huxley (1877) even used
"molluskigerous." Sowerby seems to be the only major
author who favored "mollusc," although he used the
word rarely. Some authors avoided the issue (e.g. Fleming and
J. E. Gray) by using "Mollusca" or "molluscous
animal" rather than "mollusk" or "mollusc."
British malacologists probably started favoring "mollusc"
in the 1870s: The Quarterly Journal of Conchology (vol. 1, 1874-1878),
which became Journal of Conchology, used that spelling. Another
possible influence is Charles Darwin, who used "mollusc."
British popular works on conchology
also favored the spelling "mollusk": M. Roberts (1851),
A Popular History of the Mollusca; M. S. Lovell (1867), The
Edible Mollusks of Great Britain and Ireland with recipes for
cooking them; [E. Mayo] (1846), Lessons on shells as given to
children between the ages of eight and ten, in a Pestalozzian
school, at Cheam, Surrey, 3rd ed. (The first edition used "mollusca";
I haven't seen the second edition). Among the popular works
I've examined, only A. Catlow (1843), Popular Conchology used
"mollusc." The Imperial Dictionary, John Ogilvie,
ed. (1852), published in Edinburgh and London lists "mollusk"
with no alternate spelling.
Today it is well established
that "mollusk" is the American spelling, and "mollusc"
is the British spelling. For example, the British Collin's Dictionary
of the English language, 2nd ed. (1986), gives "mollusk"
as the U.S. spelling of "mollusc." The Columbia Encyclopedia,
the standard American one volume encyclopedia (3rd ed., 1963),
doesn't even mention an alternate spelling of "mollusk."
"Mollusk" first appears in one of Noah Webster's dictionaries
in 1854. The alternate spelling "mollusc" is not listed
until 1961 (3rd unabridged edition). The first dictionary published
in the United States that mentions "mollusc" as an
alternate spelling of "mollusk" appears to be The
Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1889). There are of course
American works that use the spelling "mollusc" before
1900, but they are rarities, e.g., Zell's Popular Encyclopedia
(1871), published in Philadelphia.
So, which is correct, "mollusk"
or "mollusc"? I favor mollusk, because it is formed
in accordance with accepted standards of English orthography.
Many English words end in -sk, but only a few end in -sc. The
OED includes five: disc, fisc, lantisc, panisc, and subfusc,
all of which have variant or preferred spellings ending in -sk.
"Disk," from Latin discus, is preferred to "disc":
the OED says "An earlier and better spelling is disk, but
there is a tendency to use disc in some scientific senses."
"Fisc" (the public, state or royal treasury) is preferred
to "fisk," except in Scottish law, but the word is
now rare. "Lantisk" (the mastic tree) is now preferred
over "lantisc," and "panisc" (a little Pan),
is rare, with a single quotation in 1850 balancing one in 1604
for "panisk." "Subfusk" (dusky, dull, somber)
was the dominant spelling from 1710 to 1900, with "subfusc"
winning out in the 20th century from its first appearance in
1883. Among common English words, "mollusc" and "disc"
are the only exceptions to the general pattern of derivation
of -sk words from Latin and French:
|asteriscus = asterisk
||casque = cask
|basiliscus = basilisk
||frisque = frisk
|Damascus = damask
||masque = mask
|flasco = flask
||risque = risk
|muscus = musk
|obeliscus = obelisk
Asterisk, basilisk, damask, and
obelisk all had variant spellings with -sc endings in previous
centuries, but have now standardized on the -sk ending. The
preference for -sk endings in English may reflect the Germanic
affinities of the language. The continued persistence of the
-sc spelling of "mollusk" probably results from its
coexistence with the words "molluscan" and "Mollusca";
just as the continued existence of "disc" correlates
with the existence of "discoidal." The other words
derived from Latin listed above do not have common adjectival
forms that would allow persistence of -sc endings.
I'll conclude with an analogy
to the divergence of populations of a species. Imagine the word
"mollusk" evolving in England. The word is polymorphic,
with variants "mollusk" and "mollusc," the
latter being less common initially. The word "mollusk"
dispersed to the United States, but "mollusc" did
not. Subsequently, "mollusc" increased in frequency
in Great Britain, displacing "mollusk," and then propagated
to other parts of the world as malacological traditions were
established in South Africa, Australia and elsewhere. As English
has become the primary language of science, many European scientists
have adopted it, generally using British English because of
proximity. Since "mollusc" is now (probably) more
widespread and common globally than "mollusk," people
have assumed that it was always the common form and that "mollusk"
evolved from it in the United States. In fact, "mollusk"
was formerly the dominant form even in England. Similar misinterpretations
often happen in attempts to figure out the evolutionary relationships
of species, but careful analysis of characters generally reveals
the underlying patterns.
Academy of Natural Sciences,
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1195
article was published in the September 1996 issue of American