Sunday, October 17, 2010


The local middle school has embarked on a spelling adventure. I inadvertently inserted myself into the process when I recently subbed for a group of fifth graders who were urgently studying for a school-wide spelling bee. One of our tasks the day I was there was to complete a brief written spelling test, the results of which would be used to determine who would go on to the next level of persecution.

I mean, the second round. It was a mixed blessing, though, because the five best spellers from each classroom would be tested on the next group of new and more challenging words during their lunch break.

“Why do we have to do it during lunch?” one top speller asked.

“Because,” I said, opting for the disobliging response. “Quick: spell disobliging.” He began, “D – I – S.” And I ran swiftly from the room.

Later I saw two girls quizzing each other. “Scheherazadian,” one said to the other. The other girl rattled it right off, while I was stuck trying to decide between “Sh” and “Sch.”

And I always thought I was a good speller. I remember being involved in one spelling bee when I was a fifth grader. As I recall, I won, but of course I might be mistaken. I also remember always being polite to adults when I was younger and flossing my teeth in the school bathroom after lunch. And never doing anything wrong. Never, ever.

Maybe I didn’t win the spelling bee after all.

I used to equate being a good speller with smarts, but I have begun to take a second look at such a theory. I have met intelligent people (pupils and adults) who seem to lack basic spelling skills. Whether this is a function of nature vs. nurture, I don’t know. My own talent in this area is likely a result of my voracious reading—books, proctologists’ pamphlets, and Do Not Feed the Animals signs. If it is written, I wanna read it.

Poor spelling, therefore, might result from a lack of exposure to language. Of course, for some people it could also be indifference. I’ve met some of those people. Thay kare nuthing fer propar speling.

Regardless the cause, efforts are made to help people who are thusly challenged. There are plenty of rules designed to increase spelling skills, but I wonder if they really do much. Not for the ones who don’t care, because rules won’t make them care. For the ones who do care, the rules are a bit vague and sometimes untrustworthy.

For example: the time-honored rule of “i before e except after c.” Or the rest of the sing-song standard, “unless sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh.”

Works great, especially for neighbor and weigh and other words which fit. “I before e except after c,” unless that weird dude Keith has seized all the codeine.

Basically “i before e” is a rule, except when it is not. In which case you are on your own. This is unhelpful to the spelling-challenged among us. They need rules, and guides, and acronyms that work. Or at least a good spell checker.

Of course a good spell checker doesn’t know if you mean though or through or thought. Not only are they different by just one letter, but the vowel combination of “ou” sounds different in each word! And it gets worse, because enough, bough, and cough present three more ways to pronounce “ou.”

The English language is rife with ridiculous spellings, making it nearly impossible to apply any logic. Hence, you either spell well somewhat naturally, or you spend so much time memorizing lists of words that other facets of your life—like work and family—suffer. If you choose neither of those routes, you are simply doomed.

If you are one of the doomed ones, fear not. Poor spelling has generally not caused death or disfigurement. No one has lost their inheritance because of an inability to spell “inheritance,” and the reverse of poor spelling (otherwise known as the national spelling bee) looks like an even worse way to live.

The pressure-packed national spelling bee, nowadays shown annually on television, proves that a vast amount of studying is necessary to be a national champ. It also helps to be homeschooled, of foreign birth, and quite possibly to have an idiosyncratic way of keeping the spelling beat, like tapping the thigh or spinning the eyeballs. Also, familiarity with the phrase “can I have the language of origin, please?” can be beneficial.

For just about every contestant except the winner, the national spelling bee seems to end in tears. Can you spell “crushing defeat?” Of course you can, because you just suffered it. On national TV no less! Talk about pressure!

Hopefully the local middle schoolers are better able to deal with their ultimate humiliation. Except the kid who wins, of course.

That newly crowned nerd will just be shunned.


  1. Good column!
    I like to think that I am a good speller, and I did participate in some spelling bees about seventy years ago. What you wrote recalled an interesting experience in my life about 55 years ago. In college I lived in a house with several other guys. One was a physics major. I was a public relations major. He couldn't spell. He actually spelled the simple word "us", as in referring to a group, unbelievable as "ous." In his defense there are many scientific terms like gaseous that might justify his inability to spell properly. I on the other hand had trouble with math. I never did find any justification for that. So we had a pact. I would proofread all his papers for spelling and grammar and he would proofread all mine for mathematical correctness. It worked well for the year that we were roommates.

  2. That's a great trade-off! Spelling certainly has nothing to do with intelligence. It is always strange to see, however, if it comes easily to your own brain. Differences are what make life interesting. We all are teachers and students.