The English language can be so cruel. Just when we think we’ve got everything under control—from the silent G in sign and gnat, to the use of GH instead of F in tough—it throws another curveball our way.
Besides the silent E, there is another big one. The silent B.
When it comes to English, one thing is certain: rules are made to be broken. For every rule our ancestors made to teach us how to pronounce a word, we’ve got a host of exceptions to prove them wrong. Why do we pronounce the B in crumble, but leave it out in crumb? Why do we honor the B in limber, but pretend it doesn’t exist in limb?
And why don’t we just stop spelling words with a silent letter in them, anyway?
In this article we’ll explore why words with silent B exist at all—and how to navigate the minefield of silent letters. We’ve even got a list of the frustrating B words that continue to bamboozle us at every turn (but bamboozle isn’t one of them).
Why The Silent Treatment?
Generally speaking, the silent B in English words wasn’t always silent. Pronunciation changed over the centuries—as is the case with bomb, which was originally pronounced bomba. Climban was the original word for climb, and both climban and bomba pronounced their Bs. By the 1300s, our ancestors had done away with some of the un-trendy extra syllables, but (confusingly) held onto the extra B. Spelling and pronunciation weren’t always logical—as many of us who are trying to learn English can attest.
Without a Doubt
Let’s take the word doubt, for example. This comes from the Old French doute—which has its roots in the Latin dubitare. By the time it reached English, it had already dropped the B, except if we described someone as being dubious.
English scholars in the 1500s decided that the right move would be to honor its Latin roots by including the B in there somewhere. Doute became doubte. Interestingly, the E was dropped later as it was considered a waste of effort and space, but the B remained.
Away With The Debt of Etymology
Another example of meddlesome scholars comes with the word debt.
It comes from the Old French word dette, which was adopted as-is into Middle English. Scholars realized that the word came from the Latin term debitum (there’s the pesky B) and so they decided to add a B into the English version. Latin was the language of the educated and upper class, so although we took many words from other languages, we appear to have been committed to making them look as much like Latin as possible.
Since many people could neither read nor write in the Middle Ages, it didn’t make that much difference to the masses—but allowed the great minds of the time to hold to their Latin loyalties. French scholars followed suit for a short time, but dropped the pesky B—unlike us.
Many English words are a bit of an etymological mess. Because we adopted words that sounded French and spelled them as though they were Latin, we ended up with a Latin B for no modern reason at all.
So the next time you hesitate on a word like lamb, climb, or subtle (all words with silent B) you can thank early English scholars for making your English learning journey a little more adventurous.
Ready to feel really confused? Check out our list of English words with a silent B.
List of Words With Silent B
Silent B at the end (usual case)
womb, tomb, thumb, thumb, succumb, subtle, plumb, numb, limb, lamb, jamb, dumb, doubt, debt, crumb, comb, climb, bomb, aplomb
Silent B at the start
It’s a fact that there are some words with silent B at the start, but they are extremely rare. Here are the ones we were able to find.
bdellometer, bdellium, bdellatomy