The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 01 Dec 2023

Obsolete spellings and new ligatures in the names of famous persons

There's this technique you learn in elementary calculus called l'Hospital's rule or l'Hôpital's rule, depending on where and when you learned it. It's named for Guillaume l'Hospital or Guillaume l'Hôpital.

In modern French the ‘s’ is silent before certain consonants, and sometime in the 18th century it became standard to omit it, instead putting a circumflex over the preceding vowel to show that the ‘s’ was lurking silently. You can see the same thing in many French words, where the relationship with English becomes clear if you remember that the circumflex indicates a silent letter ‘s’. For example

  • côte (coste, coast)
  • fête (feste, feast)
  • île (isle, isle)
  • pâté (paste, paste)

and of course

  • hôpital (hospital, hospital)

Wikipedia has a longer list.

But the spelling change from ‘os’ to ‘ô’ didn't become common until the 18th century and l'Hôpital, who died in 1704, spelled his name the old way, as “l'Hospital”. The spelling with the circumflex is in some sense an anachronism. I've always felt a little funny about this. I suppose the old spelling looks weird to francophones but I'm not a francophone and it seems weird to me to spell it in a way that l'Hospital himself would not have recognized.

For a long time I felt this way about English names also, and spelled Shakespeare's name “Shakspere”. I eventually gave up on this, because I thought it would confuse people. But I still think about the question every time I have to spell it and wonder what Shakespeare would have thought. Perhaps he would have thought nothing of it, living as he did in a time of less consistent orthography.

To find out the common practice, I went to the German Wikipedia page for Karl Gauss, for whom there a similar issue arises. They spell it the modern way, “Gauß”. But now another issue intrudes: They spell it “Carl” and not “Karl”! If the name were completely modernized, wouldn't it be “Karl Gauß” and not “Carl Gauß”? Is “Carl” still a thing in German?

Gauss is glowering down at me from his picture on an old ten-mark banknote I keep on my wall, so I checked just now and Deutsche Bundesbank also spells it ”Carl Gauß”. (The caption sprouts forth from his left shoulder.)

obverse of 1999
10 Deutsche mark banknote with portrait of Karl Gauss. The portrait is
captioned “1777–1855 Carl Friedr. Gauß”

Now I wonder why I checked the German Wikipedia for Gauss before checking the French Wikipedia for l'Hôpital. Pure stupidity on my part. French Wikipedia uniformly spells it the modern way, with the circumflex.

I suppose I will have to change my practice, and feel the same strangeness whenever I write “Gauß” or “l'Hôpital” as I do when I write “Shakespeare”.


  • Math SE search for l'Hôpital produces 9,336 hits including many that omit the ‘s’ entirely, “l'Hopital”. A search for l'Hospital produces a surprisingly large 5,593 hits.

  • I also consulted the Chicago Manual of Style but found nothing helpful.

  • I once knew a graduate student named Chris Geib, who explained to me that his German ancestors had probably been named “Geiß” (“goat”) but that the ẞ was misinterpreted at some point.

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