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There’s never a last word on spelling

David Wolman is the author of "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling."

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, and were the master wordsmith alive today, I suspect he would be both a fan and a critic of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking place today and Thursday. Johnson penned the first annotated dictionary of the English language. At 3 million words in length, with 43,000 entries, it is one of history’s greatest lexicographical achievements. As it happens, Johnson also believed that no word should ever end with “c.” Had he successfully persuaded the public of this sentiment, today we would be writing not just “publick” but also “gothick,” “pedagogick,” “musick” -- you get the idea.

Johnson would appreciate the celebration of words inherent in bee mania, and likewise this week’s etymological feast. But he (by which I mean I, using Johnson for cover) might also ask: As dramatic as the big bee may be, with its multimedia medley of spinoff movies, books and musicals, does it suggest a capital-C Correct English that paints a false impression of fixed orthography and a strict constructionist view of language? Is English at the bee more rigid than the real thing?

Two generations after Johnson’s dictionary took the (literate) English-speaking world by storm, a fiery patriot and obsessive word nerd from Connecticut published his own magnum opus, “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” Noah Webster nixed all those extra “k’s” -- few people other than Johnson had paid them much attention anyway -- while leaving his own orthographic mark on the lexicon.

In the United States, “gaol” became “jail, “masque” became “mask,” “centre” became “center” and “humour” became “humor” -- all because of Webster. He was particularly adamant about purging the “u” in words like “humour” and “colour,” a spelling convention that he called a “palpable absurdity.”

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At the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie and other supporters of the simplified spelling movement were pilloried by the press for pushing a deliberate effort to turn “barque” into “bark,” “liquorice” into “licorice” and “hiccough” into “hiccup,” whereas nowadays those constructions are standard.

Of course, language wars and ire-breathing pundits are nothing new. Today’s dogmatic defenders of “through” assert that there is no place in the pantheon of correct English for “thru,” to say nothing of their energetic disdain for text-message shorthand.

At the other end of the spectrum: evangelists of orthographic havoc, descriptivists to the death who believe that if people use language in such and such a way, and if information moves smoothly between parties, “sobeit.”

In the digital age, as we the wiki wrest control of language from the hands of the elite, spelling bees look a little fuddy-duddy. Now, I realize bee parents -- spelling’s Hockey Dads -- might misinterpret these lukewarm feelings as criticism of their talented offspring. (Does anyone know the number for the federal witness protection program?) But I’m not pooh-poohing the participants. They get it -- English’s magnificent breadth and organic nature, I mean. It’s everyone else I worry about.

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This week, when you hear that dreadful buzzer signal yet another misspelling, take a moment to reflect not on the difficulty of memorizing letter strings but on English’s elastic, democratic and deliciously chaotic(k) heritage. After all, not even dictionary editors can claim the final word on correctness. As Johnson wrote in the introduction to his masterpiece: The lexicographer’s responsibility is not to decide how people should speak and write “but to register the language,” documenting how the masses have “hitherto expressed their thoughts.”

Amen, brotha.


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