Spelling (Sometimes) Counts

A tough book to spell

A tough book to spell

Among the things I’m bad at are backing into parking spaces, taking a hint, and grasping what people are saying when they mouth words to me. Among the things I’m good at are finding parking spaces, predicting what sports announcers will say, and spelling. The last mastery, in the digital age, is a bit like having lots of odd facts at your beck and call. They’re great skills if you happen to wander into a spelling bee or Quizzo night, but otherwise, they’re fairly vestigial.

In both cases, what’s important may not be the content, but the process and the context. I could learn on the Internet in less than two seconds that Mel Ott hit 511 home runs, but what about a rough sense of his declining position in the list of career home-run leaders over the past 50 years? They haven’t built the app that can match the sports fan at the bar stool, and I can’t imagine that they will.

As for spelling, a certain baseline capacity is important, so as to avoid countenancing auto-correct and spell-check errors, like referring (as my students have done) to the “Super Attendant of Schools,” a “heroine attic,” and “my pampas boyfriend.” Beyond that—understanding that there are exceptions—I do think good writers are good spellers. My favorite quote on writing is from the critic F.W. Bateson, who listed the “defining characteristics of good prose” as: “a preference for short sentences diversified by an occasionally very long one; a tone that is relaxed and almost colloquial; a large vocabulary that enjoys exploiting the different etymological and social levels of words; and an insistence on verbal and logical precision.” The relevant bit here is etymology; spelling is often a key that unlocks it. Beyond that, to effectively and judiciously deploy a word, you need to own it, and to me spelling is part of that ownership and familiarity.

But as Joe E. Brown once said, nobody’s perfect. There are certain words I almost always spell wrong, notably Cincinnati and accommodate. Wondering about others’ orthographic nemeses, I put the question out on Twitter and got a lot of responses. Here are some highlights:

  • “embarrassed and harassed … hang on, have I got them the right way round…?”
  • “concencus”
  • “‘necessarily’ ‘Adirondack’”
  • “‘Occasion.’ And ‘narcissism.’”
  • “‘Definitely’ and ‘manufacturer’ and ‘infrastructure.’”
  • “Siege and seize.”
  • “‘Grafitti’ & ‘dietician.’”
  • “Often have to check hemorrhage and I’m finally getting the hang of Mediterranean.”
  •  ”‘Desiccate’ (managed to train myself after a pub quiz humiliation) and ‘Khrushchev’ (still need to look it up every time).”
  • “Occasionally, Massachusetts, connoisseur and manoeuvre.”
  • “bureaucracy—very damn time”
  • “Cincinatti’s the worst. And liaison, which makes no sense”
  • “Embarrassed. Britannica. An embarrassed Encyclopaedia Britannica is spelling hell.”

The key stumbling points seem to be i-e order and doubling up on consonants, neither of which seems to consistently follow a rule. Foreign derivatives (like connoisseur and bureaucracy) are troublemakers, as are cases like sacrilege and privilege, where spelling and pronunciation are at odds.

Any other words that give you a duece deuce of a time?


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