I blushed to learn I had been wrong all my life. ‘Though Sir William Golding consistently pronounced the word as contsh in a lecture that he gave on The Lord of the Flies at the University of Oxford in 1990,’ says Professor Robert Burchfield in his New Fowler’s, ‘the more usual standard pronunciation is conk.’
I cannot think that I have ever heard anyone pronounce conch as conk. William Golding, a man interested in language, might have been expected to know, especially since the shell played a notable part in his novel. Etymologically there is some sense in the conk sound, since the word comes from Greek konche; I should make clear that the letter transliterated as ch here is the chi, as in Christ, and undoubtedly a hard sound. As with so much in language it turns out not to be quite so simple. Conch comes to us through Latin concha. We might well have picked it up from French. The French is now conque, but in the Middle Ages it was conche.
The earliest example in English collected by the Oxford English Dictionary is from that magpie John de Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum by Bartholomew the Englishman. Trevisa made his translation about 1398, although the OED quotation comes from the first printed edition, published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1495. It is there spelled conche, and in the same sentence is the word conchillia, which it is extremely hard to imagine was pronounced with a hard ch. Bartholomew’s book, a sort of encyclopaedia written in the early 13th century, was a smash-hit bestseller of the late Middle Ages, and at the University of Paris there was a standard charge at which students could hire copies out. But if error is our topic, Bartholomew himself was the subject of a whopping one, for he is listed under the name Glanville in the Dictionary of National Biography, which was not his name at all. The DNB has the grace to say immediately that Glanville was ‘the name erroneously given to him’, but I wonder whether he will continue to be listed under G in the new edition of the DNB, the publication of which we eagerly await.
Bartholomew was again translated in 1582 by Stephen Batman under the pleasant title Batman upon Bartholomew. Shakespeare is said to have read it. Batman was the sort of Tudor scholar who thought the Pope a pagan deity — a strange prejudice for an antiquary, which he shared with the friar-hating John ‘Bilious’ Bale, the guilty man who propagated the erroneous name Glanville. We all make mistakes.