How’s your spelling? Bad, fair, good? Few of us put up our hand and claim our spelling skills to be excellent.
It takes a bold individual to say they are instantly sure which of these common words is spelled incorrectly: desiccate, occurrence, inoculate, supercede, liaison. (See foot of column.)
One reason for these difficulties is that an awful lot of words blew into English from foreign climes, on strange winds, often shaped by the tongues of those who happily uttered them but cared not tuppence how they might be written. Barbecue, for instance, is an attempt at the Spanish barbacoa.
To further confuse matters, some words arrived twice despite originating from just one word of another language. They have different meanings (though you see the connection) in English: troupe/troop, arch/arc, warden/guardian.
And words change their spelling. A look at Bibles through the ages reveals that “heaven” was written heofonum in the 10th Century, heuenes in 1380, heven by 1534, and heauen in the King James Version of 1611.
Writers often invent words: pandemonium (Milton), chortle (Lewis Carroll). Some play fast and loose with punctuation (don’t think I haven’t noticed your lack of quotation marks, Hilary Mantel). Some misguided malcontents have the temerity to abuse capitalisation or eschew conventional grammar. But, knowing how it alienates readers, few intentionally deviate from correct spelling unless they have a good, or comical, reason to do so. As any fule kno.
Does it matter how you spell? Remember American vice-president Dan Quayle attending a spelling bee for 12-year-olds and writing “potatoe” on the blackboard? That was 28 years ago but he is still ridiculed.
The same scorn should be poured upon those who don’t know the difference between to and too, and lose and loose. We’ll need several buckets of scorn, as these mistakes are frighteningly common.
There is a simple remedy for spelling problems. It is, of course, a dictionary. I often take issue with what dictionaries define words to mean (literally, let’s not open that can of worms again) but I hold them in high regard for their command of spelling.
However, though most of us own dictionaries we use them as dust collectors. If you don’t want to appear as dumb as an American politician (a truly egregious insult) blow the cobwebs from your OED, Collins, or Chambers.
Supercede is incorrect, it should be supersede.
Word of the week
The study of spelling, and how letters combine to represent sounds. EG: “Pay heed to your orthography classes Mr Quayle.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org