Slivers or Slithers


I wrote about the confusion between these two words three years ago (here). From the evidence we appear to be losing the word ‘sliver’ completely. I recently offered a slice of cake to a very well-educated person who wanted to accept “just a slither, please”. And three separate examples from newspapers in otherwise well-written and spelt articles:
1. “At most, it should represent a slither of a broad investment portfolio” (recommending the purchase of a company’s shares)
2. “A slice of 1840 fruitcake for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding sold for £1500, while a slither for the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 …” (ignore the fact that she was still Princess Elizabeth in 1947)
3. (after suffering a cold) “you wake in the morning, and the nostrils are crusted and a slither of air has entered, light at the end of the tunnel.”
None of these three satisfies the definition of the OED’s “something smooth and slippery; a smoothly sliding mass”.

In my usage, sliver is almost invariably a noun (the most recent example given in the OED for its use as a verb is from Rudyard Kipling in 1896), while slither is almost always a verb, although I can live with a slither of snakes.


  1. That seems to confirm that the noun slither is a change by younger generations. And probably started a good while ago to become so visible now. Your example by Sir Leonard Woolley (your link) might not be his personally. It could have crept in from editing at the publishers or a slip by the typesetter. The original 1929 edition is here:
    (the 3rd of three impressions in Dec 1929, 210pp).

  2. Sidney – Thank you for digging this out (if you’ll excuse the pun). “Slither” is what appears here, too – on page 200. I’ve now also looked at the “reprinted with revisions” 1950 Pelican edition, which was also prepared by Sir Leonard, and substantially expanded (by about 16 pages). The printers of the 1950 edition were also different from those of the 1938 edition. The word “slithers” has not been amended to “slivers”, so I think we can assume that it was Sir Leonard’s ‘mistake’, rather than a type-setting error. The OED entry for “slither” has not been amended since 1912. Maybe it’s time someone looked at it again. Perhaps we can say that Sir Leonard was an “early adopter” of the new pronunciation.

  3. He was born in 1880, so he seems to be an early example of the sound change in RP. But without other examples we can’t really know what was ‘early’, what was ‘up to date’ and what was ‘anachronistic’. That same lack of examples tells us to be surprised. And our own usage. You have ‘sliver’ for the noun, so do I. But these are hardly very active parts of my vocabulary, I’d say ‘a piece of cake’, and ‘splinter’ for a tiny piece of wood. The most active part would be the sense ‘slip’ and ‘slippery’ for verb ‘slither’ and adjective ‘slithery’.

    I tried to find a sound recording, he broadcast for the BBC but nothing seems to have survived, there or at the BL. I did find this (all on one line)

    Which includes a few seconds by Woolley that must still exist in someone’s vault.

  4. Sidney – Pre-2nd World War BBC Radio talks, especially those given during the 1920s, will not have been recorded, so we are unlikely to find, even in somebody’s attic or cellar, a surviving relic of Leonard Woolley’s voice. If we are very lucky, scripts may still exist, but much of the BBC’s archive was destroyed when a bomb hit Broadcasting House and went off in a lift as it was being taken down to the ground floor for removal (it hit a balustrade, bounced off through a window into the building, skidded along the floor, through some swing doors, and came to rest in a corridor. Fire watchers hunted it down, and then roped it, and got it into the lift. Unfortunately, it exploded while in transit downwards, and there were some casualties as a result). I had this story from the maintenance foreman on duty that night, when he visited Broadcasting House for an exhibition to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the building in 1992. Regrettably, although he was asked to get his experiences down on tape, he disappeared from the building again before doing this, so I don’t even know his name, and I assume that 28 years on, he will have died.
    After this diversionary tale, the other source of any script might be Woolley’s own archive, if there is one. But even if there is, it will tell us very little about his speech patterns.
    And the link you give doesn’t seem to work any more. Pity!

  5. I have been wondering whether the sliver / slither convergence is a phonetic overgeneralisation of ‘standard English’ vs ‘non-standard English and the fricative f / v being used instead of th by some users of non-standard English, “I fought so” vs “I thought so”; “bruvver” vs “brother; etc

    That is: hearing ‘sliver’ in a ‘standard English’ context, some users of ‘standard English’ have self-corrected to ‘slither’ to avoid ‘non-standard’ usage!!

  6. Mink –
    I’m sure you’re right. Your phrase “phonetic overgeneralisation” is what I phrased “hypercorrection”. There must be other examples of the same phenomenon, where /f,v/ is replaced by /θ,ð/, and I wonder if the case of Keighley, which I wrote about recently, provides one – the expected pronunciation would be either /‘kiːfli/ or /‘kiːli/ (or even with a different vowel – Kayli? Kylie?, cf weight and height). Perhaps it was at one time /‘kiːfli/, but hypercorrected to /‘kiːθli/. Can anyone provide evidence?

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