“Only you would give that keynote!” a good friend of mine exclaimed with a laugh when I told her how I had spent my Saturday afternoon. Now I feel quite sure that is not technically true, but I take the point: Not everyone would think you could squeeze a keynote out of English spelling. I, on the other hand, cannot think of a much more fun thing to have the chance to do.
The talk, which I called “Weird and Wonderful Stories Behind English Spelling,” was the lunchtime plenary at the MITESOL 2018 conference. MITESOL (Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) gathers together teachers and students who care as much about the details of the English language as I do — which means that I can make bad jokes about participles and know that if they fall flat, it is because it was a bad joke, not because people didn’t know what a participle is.
The bulk of the talk was about the history of English spelling, explaining such curiosities as colonel (pronounced with an /r/?) and debt (with a silent b?), island (is the s really a mistake?) and mice (why not mis?). But I decided along the way to raise the issue of how much weight we put on “good spelling” — and how judgy we can be of misspelling, even though all of us know (and perhaps are) very, very smart people who struggle with spelling.
In the Q&A, one very observant audience member asked why I had used the word judgy to refer to critical attitudes about spelling rather than judgmental. As soon as she asked the question, my mental instant replay kicked in, and I recognized that I had made exactly that word choice, on the fly, in the talk. Did I have a rationale?
Certainly, I like the word, and I started there in my response. It feels slangy, given the final -y (consider our ability to make new words like interrupty or traffic-lighty), and I believe in celebrating the lexical creativity of slang. Merriam-Webster online dates the first use of judgy back to 1997 and describes it as informal. Clearly, I would go so far as to call it slangy -- it has that touch of irreverence to it.
But it wasn’t just the informality and irreverence that made judgy the right term for my purposes. For me, even though Merriam-Webster offers judgmental as a synonym, judgy and judgmental have different connotations. Judgy is, well, less judgy. Or, to put it differently, judgmental has harsher edges to it. In class this week, students also pointed out to me that for many of them, judgy refers more to a specific set of actions, at a specific moment in time, whereas judgmental refers more to a personal trait or characteristic.
In this talk, I was asking people to reflect on their attitudes about other people’s spelling, with the suggestion that we may all be tempted to make judgments that are not justified. Obviously, in some contexts we may be justified in thinking that someone hasn’t taken the time to proof or to ask someone else to proof their writing. But in less formal contexts, we may take spelling to be more reflective of education or intelligence than we should.
That moment in the talk was designed to be a thought-provoking question, a moment for reflection on what is at stake in mastering the sometimes chaotic anarchy of English spelling.* The last thing I wanted to do was sound judgmental. And I had judgy there at the ready, some 20 years old and going strong, to take the edge off.
* That description aside, one of my points in the talk is that some 80 percent or more of English spelling is regular and can be taught as patterned. It’s just that the irregularities can be so spectacular in their irregularity!