A Word on Asphalt

Did you ever see the word “ashfault” in a newspaper, book, article ­– or anywhere else at all?

Well, until recently I was unaware of this word’s existence (too). It was only when I read Paul Brian’s usage guide Common Errors in English Usage a few days ago, that I happened to stumble on an entry of this spelling variant. Brians remarks that:

“ashfault is a common misspelling of asphalt” (p. 17).

At this point, a somewhat tedious question, which can be applied in any situation where qualitative remarks are made, came to mind: What is “common”? How widespread is the use of “ashfault” really in written material? Or could this spelling variant be the result of a variant pronunciation?

To get some idea of the usage-frequency of “ashfault” as compared to “asphalt”, I decided to look up the former word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This search yielded no results. The OED did contain an entry on “asphalt”, however. The Merriam Webster Dictionary, in addition, also did not include “ashfault”, and it advised me to try “asphalt” instead. Eventually, only the Urban Dictionary provided me with an entry on “ashfault”, saying that:

“ashfault is a word meaning the same as assfault but said ashfault. Origin: Michigan”

From this dictionary, it seems that another variant joins the competition: besides “asphalt”, and “ashfault” the spelling variant “assfault” apparently also exists. Whether “ashfault” and “assfault” are truly competing with “asphalt seems implausible however. None of the three spelling variants occurs in another recent usage guide: The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005), which seems to indicate that according to this guide’s usage panel no noteworthy usage problem concerning “asphalt” exists at all. Google Ngrams, furthermore, gives zero results for “ashfault” and “assfault”, and it only proved the existence of “asphalt” in both British and American English.

From the results of these quick searches, it seems disputable whether “ashfault” should be included in dictionaries or usage guides. In fact, it brings us back to a major question: at what point is something considered a usage problem?

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9 Responses to A Word on Asphalt

  1. Interestingly, I think you’ll find in Australia and New Zealand, although spelled ‘Asphalt’, it is almost universally pronounced ‘Ash-felt’.

  2. Jeffrey Hanning says:

    I recently bought my 4 year old son a DVD that featured trains that I believed was produced in Canada. It is one in a series of videos that show different types of machinery with an actor doing a voiceover of the vehicles. One episode on Mighty Machines: Making Tracks they were doing something with asphalt and each and every actor said “ashfault”. I am not sure if all the actors really pronounce it that way or perhaps the director of the episode instructed them to say it a certain way.

  3. Kevin Frank says:

    I moved to Ontario a number of years ago, and yes, they say “ash-fault” here.

  4. Ben Burger says:

    I live in Ontario I’m 23. I’ve always said Ash-Fault, everyone I know says ash-fault. In fact I was watching Dirty Jobs a few years ago, Mike Row was doing some road work I believe and he pronounced it like: Az-Fault. I was surprised by this pronunciation, I had to look up the spelling and discovered I was saying it wrong! But I’m not going to change my pronunciation, I like ash-fault better.

  5. wahg says:

    In the uk the word is virtually universally pronounced ashfault. Despite this, neither cambridge nor oxford dictionaries cite this pronunciation! I always thought the word was spelt as it sounds, but apparently it’s spelt asphalt.

  6. kiwi-ian says:

    The word is asphalt and should be pronounced ASS-FAULT. The pronunciation ASHFAULT is, I’m afraid, simply wrong and is due to people, even educated ones, misplacing the H. They know there is one but they put it with the S not the P.

    Yes I know there are some who are going to say “Michigan/Canada/New Zealand say it so it must be regional”, but no, go to a Canadian and ask him to spell it and he’ll spell it incorrectly then get confused as to how many Hs there are. Tell him the H is with the P and he’ll realise he’d simply got it wrong.

    Sometimes people simply pronounce things incorrectly then get the spelling all mixed up – for instance “particularly” has 2 Ls and both should be pronounced, “vacuum” has 2 Us and is pronounced VAC-YOU-UM, not vacume. It’s often the pronunciation that is wrong not the spelling!!

  7. Fizz says:

    I’m really glad to see wahg maintain that everyone in the UK pronounces “Asphalt” as “Ash-fault”. I grew up in the UK but have lived in the US for years–and have always pronounced the word Ash-felt, despite endless ribbing from American friends. Finally, today, I decided to put the controversy to rest and google “UK pronunciation of asphalt.” Couldn’t believe it when the Cambridge audio dictionary gave the UK pronunciation as sounding like “Ass-fault.” So I’m very glad to find this thread and get reassurance that I haven’t been inventing my pronunciation. Many words aren’t pronounced as they’re spelt, so “Ash-felt” seems a fine pronunciation to me!

    • Kitty Catkin says:

      I am a Kiwi and in NZ it tends to be ‘ashfelt’, so I was interested to see that you said ashfelt in the UK. I was there for a while, but don’t remember anyone saying the word.

      I looked up the Cambridge one, too, and was surprised because I had always had the idea that we said it as they do in the UK.

      I was beginning to wonder if I was imagining ashfelt.

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