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Spelling Random Lexical Flotsam

Publication Date: 2012-08-03

This is from Lingua Franca in the Chronicle of Higher Education, August 3, 2012.

As a 6th grader, I participated in a school spelling bee, doing very well against the 8th graders. And the prep experience turned me off spelling forever. For the rest of my elementary school career, I exhibited a studied disdain for spelling, refusing to study for spelling tests and no longer acing them. And when I'm tired I'm likely to misapply those 'gotcha' words, not because I don't the difference but because something odd seems to happen to a tired brain.

By Geoffrey Pullum

I doubt that they have spelling bees in Finland. If you hear a Finnish word clearly, you can spell it. And it’s probably not much of a cultural tragedy for the Finns. Let me tell you the winning words (whose correct spellings clinched victory for the winners) in the Scripps National Spelling Bee over the last 12 years: succedaneum, pococurante, appoggiatura, serrefine, Laodicean, cymotrichous, prospicience, authochthonous, Ursprache, guerdon, stromuhr, and guetapens. Have you found a use for any of those in the past week?

I suppose spelling bees don’t do any lasting harm. I’d rather see people attending spelling bees than dog fights. But I hope nobody imagines there is some kind of use or interest or educational value in being able to spell this sort of random flotsam from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Half the words in the list (pococurante, serrefine, prospicience, Ursprache, stromuhr, and guetapens) don’t even appear in the excellent centenary edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. What’s the point of teaching kids to spell words that don’t show up in a modern 240,000-word dictionary, when a high-school graduate typically only knows (very roughly) 12,000?

Half the words are unassimilated borrowings from other languages, anyway. Ursprache, for example, still has the German orthographic feature of a capital initial marking it as a German noun, like a visitor who hasn’t even taken his hat off yet.

And nobody cares about these words. In my source for the list (the U.K. free newspaper Metro, 13 June 2012), they hadn’t even cared enough to look them up, and gave several wildly wrong meanings (succedaneum, for example, isn’t a verb meaning “to closely follow,” it’s a noun denoting a substitute).

And why would anyone care? I don’t think I have ever used a single word in the list. They aren’t even useful in Scrabble: A 12-letter word like cymotrichous can never be used because it is longer than the number of tiles on your rack and has no substrings that are also words.

Don’t get me wrong: Spelling is certainly important. Let me say that again in case you missed it: Spelling is important. There are fixed conventions for spelling (slightly different in U.K. and U.S. English), and people tend to judge students and job seekers by the accuracy of their grasp of those conventions (affect vs. effect; principal vs. principle; stationary vs. stationeryâ€"the gotcha brigade is just itching for you to get one of these wrong). But knowing how to spell a bucketload of isolated rare and foreign words like guetapens is not important. It’s a circus trick, like standing on one hand.

Train your kids up to win spelling bees if you wish. But I would hate it if anyone made the mistake of thinking that they are accomplishing something intellectually remarkable by knowing the spellings of words like stromuhr. Learning English spelling is a hugely time-wasting, unfortunate necessity that has very little to do with intelligence. The nattering nabobs of nitpicking are wrong to regard bad spelling as a surrogate for dumbness (taking dyslexia to correlate with lack of intellectual ability, when often the reverse is the case).

Learning to spell correctly is not that clever; it’s just a tedious chore that unfortunately even the intelligent have to undertake. So learn to spell the words you actually need to use, and otherwise spend as little time on the stupid business as you can. You can look up cymotrichous in the OED, in the unlikely event that you ever need it.

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