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?