Torrid Spelling

I read an article on yesterday’s Yahoo! homepage that discussed the antics of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. A good portion of that article, written by a snobbish intern for sure, focused on the amount of hits that the Colonel’s name had garnered from internet users. “Eight different spellings of al-Gaddafi’s name appeared in the top ten searches of the past three hours.” Apparently Al Kadafi owns a car dealership in Dayton and "Moo-maral Cut Taffy" is a new Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor in the works. Sounds delicious.

I found it interesting that the attention of the story was taken off the world leader’s hissy-fit, which made his comedic mentor Hugo Chavez blush with pride, and refocused on how most people in America can’t even spell an Arabic name, let alone find the country of Arabic on the map. This is because there are a few people out there in the world who consider themselves the official enforcers of the English language, sworn to protect its spelling integrity to their dying breaths. You may know them as spelling Nazis, which I feel is slightly inaccurate as there are no umlauts in any English words.

As a writer, (professionally, recreationally, and secretly) many people suspect that I have this overarching drive to punish people for their misspellings, especially if they misspell “especially” or “misspell”. However, I think that you would find me somewhat admissive of others. True, I do have three different dictionaries on my desk that I occasionally use for light beach reading. However, my own history with spelling and my shortcomings in that domain are well documented. Or, at least they are now.

In sixth grade, I was selected from my class to participate in the school-wide spelling bee. One student, selected from each classroom, would participate in a massive assembly of students, teachers, and parents to vie for the title and the possibility of being sent to the regional competition. At first, I had no interest in taking part in this, but the idiocy of my fellow sixth graders, who thought “truck” began with a “C-H” and “hanger” had the number five in it, boosted me into the competition. As I met my competitors, I quickly realized that, as there were no Indian or Chinese kids in the bunch, my chances were pretty good.

I began my training by poring over volumes of dictionaries, encyclopedias (Brittanica and otherwise), and my mother’s romance novels. I then had my parents and siblings grill me on the most archaic of words. “Obsequious,” they shouted as I did sit-ups in the living room. “Could you please use it in a sentence,” I muttered through quick breaths. “The multitude of sycophantic adherents were obsequious in their placation. Now spell the whole sentence! Go!”

What I hoped to become

After several grueling weeks of study, I sat on a cold hard chair in the school’s gymnasium, confident that I would bring my family fame and fortune through my career in spelling. My name was called, the first to compete. I walked up to the microphone and received my first-round word. “Poised. The first word is ‘Poised’,” said the kindly moderator who was nearing retirement. With all the hubris of a sixth-grade Icarus, under those weak red and blue gym spotlights that would soon be the bright, burning glow of camera flashes and television lighting, I spoke into the microphone. “Poised. P-O-S-E-D. Poised.” Then with a smirk, I headed back to my seat thinking that the gasp that echoed from the audience behind me was from their own intuition about my celebrity future. “No, I’m sorry. That is incorrect.” My beeline for my chair made a sharp right turn and I walked off of the stage and into the hall where my dreams would have enough room to come collapsing down on my head.

Thirteen years later, I found myself at a secluded desk in a tall, glass-windowed office building in downtown Salt Lake where I encountered another test of my spelling credentials. I was applying for a job as an editor for the LDS church’s publications department. In order to vet their potential editors, along with an ecclesiastical inquiry into all of your past transgressions, they also needed to make sure you could correctly spell words like smorgasbord and hootenanny. I took the test on two separate occasions (as the first hired employee for the position was found to have a past addiction to Mountain Dew) and both times I can only assume that I failed miserably. You have to wonder about a job like that where the word “shew” is still entirely acceptable.

Being frustrated with the lack of editing jobs, I partnered with my friend to form our own editing business. Our ingenious idea was to create an online editing forum where students would pay us their parents’ hard earned money for a job that the spellchecker on their computer was perfectly able to perform. As part of this operation, we gave potential employees who responded to our Craigslist ad a document to test their editing prowess. I took a monumental essay that I had written for a college course and added several mistakes and misspellings for the candidates to find and correct. As I reviewed the test results against a key of the original document that I wrote, I found myself humbled by the fact that, though I had only spliced in five mistakes in one paragraph, one interviewee happened to find 32. One filled the paper with red corrections and included a commentary paragraph at the end questioning the entire thesis and scope of the paper. Someone drew a frowny face. I soon realized that there were many people out there who were much more talented and capable of editing mistakes than I would ever be. There were also more people capable of being just plain mean about it.

Now, I write magazine articles and am shocked with the simple spelling mistakes that my editor finds in my work. I also write for this blog where I am sure you have found several mistakes as one rather fervent friend did in the last post. I would like to blame it on technology. Not only does spellchecker eliminate the need for me to crack the spine of one of my three dictionaries, but it also prevents me from reading any books by making Zoo Tycoon so damn addicting. In an age of e-mails and texting, our society has become increasingly admissive of spelling that suits practicality over traditional convention. If I can abbreviate the preamble to the Constitution to fit in my 140 character Twitter status update, who is to say that I am not the master of my language? And so, rather than being a spelling Nazi, I am something much softer. I’d say more like a spelling Gaddafi. Not really willing to kill millions for their perceived wrong-doing, but still capable of throwing a tantrum in front of an international crowd. But through all the typos and slip-ups and vulgarization in our language today, as a writer and editor, I just have to remember to always stayed posed and balanced with the world I live in.

Poise counts!


Kara said...

Remind me not to offer a guest blog in the future! ;)

melissa said...

I missed "chansonette" at the school spelling bee. What kind of a stupid word is that?

mh said...

So, I have just completely erased my previous comment. The problem with writing a comment on a post about proper spelling, is that you are immediately and overwhelmingly concerned about your own spelling. I checked it over and over for errors, and finally gave up and erased it!