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Lettered--But Spell-Bound : Hang-ups: They have high IQs and doctorates. Some are CEOs--even ex-vice presidents. Yet they still don’t know whether it’s p-o-t-a-t-o-e or p-o-t-a-t-o.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“H ow do you spell relief?”

The boss asks a simple question--but you might as well be asked to recite the Declaration of Independence in Urdu.

In a second, you are transported back to the palm-sweating ignominy of Mrs. Davenport’s sixth-grade class. Thursday, Spelling Day. The day the apple-polishing Good Spellers go to the front of the class for their gold stars. The day you slink down in the chair to dodge your snickering classmates and escape the steely gaze of Mrs. Davenport, the oracle of orthography, whose pursed lips say it all: You are about to commit the linguistic equivalent of blowing your nose into your dinner napkin. You can’t spell.

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“Um, R-E-L-E-I-F?”

So in a world where people are judged not by their quality of mind but by the correctness of their spelling, there will be no relief for you.

*

Graffito on a UC Berkeley kiosk: “Bad spellers of the world, untie!”

Call them the orthographically challenged. (Or OCs, if you will.) They wander the land with advanced degrees; high-profile jobs; wicked takes on history, art and the state of the world. And as they wander, they secretly pray that no one will ask them to spell it.

“I’m afraid when I open my mouth to talk, it’ll come out misspelled,” says Ronnie Caplane, a contributing editor to an antiques magazine. “It’s excruciating. I break out into a sweat when I have to write notes to my children’s teachers: ‘Please excuse Morgan’s a-b-s-e-n-t-s . . . a-b-c-e-n . . .’ Forget it. ‘Morgan was not at school. She had a cold.’ Heaven help us if she ever got pneumonia.”

So why not use the dictionary?

They try.

“I’ve spent hours getting lost in the dictionary. When you’re a bad speller, you can spend days in there and never find what you’re looking for,” says Christa Rudolph-Freund, a Marin County teacher working toward a doctorate in education.

“When I was writing my master’s thesis, I’d call up the long distance operators in the middle of the night and say: ‘How do you spell colonel ?’ It isn’t k-e-r, or c-e-r, or any other logical thing you could think of. The operators were always helpful. If they didn’t know the answer, they’d ask the one sitting next to them.”

And the spell-checker?

It can’t follow you everywhere, and even if it could, its knot all ways rite any whey; after all, it’s only a machine.

So the bad spellers cope. They forge ahead, hoping to find forgiving souls along the way.

“Every time I turn in a piece, my editor assumes all my misspellings are typos. I say, ‘Yes, they’re typos,’ ” says John Seabrook, a writer at the New Yorker, who says his writing style reflects years of trying to avoid words he couldn’t spell.

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“When Dan Quayle misspelled potato , I actually felt sorry for him. And I had to think for a minute how to spell it. I take great solace in F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a terrible speller--truly unbelievable. If you look at his unedited journals, you’d think he was almost illiterate.”

*

It’s strange that we should place so much importance on whether the I comes before the E except after the C . . . except when it’s weird . . . or their . . . or leisure . . . or. . . .

But we do.

“Spelling is one of the easiest ways to categorize people by behavior. It’s highly visible, easily documentable,” says Ronald Macaulay, professor of linguistics at Pitzer College and author of several books on the sociology of language. “It’s relatively trivial, but hard to master if you don’t master it at a young age. It’s attaching tremendous significance to something trivial, but visible--like table manners.”

Indeed. If you want to get that job, get the peas off the knife, the spinach out of the teeth, and keep up the good-spelling front. Lie about it. Write around it. Lean on the spell-checker. Get someone else to spell it for you. Avoid the written word altogether. But then . . . then comes that moment your guard is down, your cover gets blown, and the wrath of the real world descends.

“Some people who can’t spell worth a damn are very good writers,” says Rene J. Cappon, general news editor at the Associated Press in New York and author of “The Word,” an AP guide to good writing. “But if you get a resume or a letter about a job with five words misspelled--or in our writing test, if someone turns out to be a supremely poor speller--you have to say, ‘Now, wait a minute.’ It’s clearly a mark against them.”

Ouch.

*

“I hope I never meet a man so narrow that he can spell a word in only one way. “ --Thomas Jefferson

Once, not so long ago, it wasn’t such a bad thing to be a bad speller. Or, let’s say, a democratic speller. At one time in Britain, you could tell what region a personal letter came from by the way it was spelled. Shakespeare spelled the same word two ways on two lines and signed his name with three combinations of letters.

“Nobody cared,” Pitzer linguist Macaulay says.

Then in the middle 18th Century, all orthographic hell broke loose. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a raving classicist, compiled a dictionary. One that remained true to the roots of the language, with its ancientisms, silent Ds, hidden Cs, vexing oughs and I’s before Es. At about the same time, members of a newly literate English middle class were devouring tips from social critics who fed them models for Correct Behavior. They acquired fish forks and magazines. They folded their napkins and scrubbed their dialects.

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“All of a sudden, spelling came to loom large as a measure of literacy,” says Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois, Urbana. “It became one of those benchmarks that said you had made it into the cultural elite.”

The Mrs. Davenports of the world took up the cause with relish.

“I was in a special college-prep course in high school, and the spelling tests given as a means of raising your grade were supposed to be seen as largess on the part of the instructor,” says Bob Calhoun, a bad-spelling professor of law at San Francisco’s Golden Gate University. “To me, it was nothing but misery. But I was lucky. I decided at an early age that the problem wasn’t me. It was English spelling.”

*

In their heart of hearts, most bad spellers know that their lot has nothing to do with lack of intelligence or even schooling.

Experts say it may be related to a weakness in visual memory or trouble with step-by-step sequencing. Anywhere from 10% to 23% of the population--maybe more--suffer.

“It’s not clear whether it’s a miswiring, a misfiring or even a difference in (brain) structure,” says Janet Ewart Eddy, director of the department of learning services at USC.

Call it a simple brain glitch, one that does not compute the subtleties of the orthographic nightmare known as the English language: Three main strains of ancient influence, scads of assimilated foreignisms, acres of spellings that haven’t changed since Chaucer’s time, and an unlikely storehouse of 20,000 commonly used words--only 20% of which look the way they sound.

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But the Mrs. Davenports of the world, guardians of the hallowed cause of form, don’t care. They live for one purpose: To question not only your intelligence (and maybe your breeding), but your very worth as a human being.

“When I was a freshman in college, I turned in an English composition paper for this nasty troll of a man and, naturally, it was full of spelling errors,” says a 50-year-old Oakland author who says her publisher cringes each time she turns in an otherwise perfect manuscript.

“This professor wrote all the errors on the board and he sort of sneered, ‘I don’t know how this person got into this class.’ The implication was that I should have been in bonehead English. He didn’t use my name, but I was so red I’m sure everyone knew who it was,” she says. “But success is vindication enough. It makes people like that furious to see people they’ve deemed inadequate succeed.”

Aaaah , Revenge of the Bad Spellers. They may not be able to juggle the alphabet, but many of them are smart. As smart as their tormentors are shortsighted. The best and brightest include the rich and powerful: Gen. George Patton, President Harry Truman, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, computer czar Bill Gates, novelist Fitzgerald, to name a handful.

Pity the judgmental Good Speller who one day ends up working for a Bad Speller.

“I have this fantasy,” says antiques writer-bad speller Caplane. “My first boss, this thoroughly humiliating person I had to plug into my ear while he dictated his letters, ends up being the proofreader on my best-selling novel. I’d be very gracious and kind about it--but I’d make sure that he knew what his job was.”

Too-shay.

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