Life Writing

My Misspellings and Misspeakings

I’ve always considered myself a good speller. Whatever that means.

I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and I was bummed to have been eliminated in the pre-trials in 5th grade by the word necessary. The representative from our homeroom who did get necessary correct (after everyone else had already exhausted the other logical possible spellings of that word) lost in the finals on the word hexagon. Yes, she was a smart person in other ways, and she turned out in high school to be an excellent swimmer (far better an athlete than the runner I was). Still, I was quite resentful at the time (Hexagon? Hexagon?!).

I pride myself to this day on not using spellcheck in word processors or web browsers. I don’t want a program to automatically flag words as misspelled that I should know how to spell, but I will deliberately look up the spelling of certain words I’m not sure of. Disingenuous, for example, is one I can never remember the spelling of.

Of course, despite my bravado and hubris, I’m more or less an average speller when it comes to college-educated folk (that’s university-educated, for you readers outside the US). After watching Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, I realized just how mediocre my spelling skills are. Those kids are spelling words I don’t know the meanings of—words I’ve never even heard of, words I would doubt are in the English language if they didn’t have dictionary entries.

But not only am I a mediocre speller for my demographic, ultimately; I am, in fact, deficient. I misspell constantly. In fact, I just wrote mispell just now and then corrected myself. That isn’t my usual kind of blunder, though. Usually, I don’t misspell the appropriate word so much as spell correctly a wholly inappropriate but vaguely similar-sounding word. For example, if I intend to write something like I like the way my cat smells after a bath, I might actually type I like the weight my cat smells after a bath.

From an English teacher’s perspective (I used to be one), this is a rather odd kind of spelling error. Most people who misspell do not substitute in correctly spelled wrong words; they use the right words and just spell them incorrectly. For example, you might see a phonetic speller spell imagine as emagen or spell segue as segway. Not being a learning specialist, I don’t know where this comes from, but in my unprofessional opinion I’d guess it stems from people not having read enough. The more you read, the more familiar you become with the way words look and are spelled, and (even if you don’t know the exact spelling of a word) you grow to recognize quite quickly if a word doesn’t look right.

In fact, if anything, people who read a lot have the opposite problem of those who do not read as much—the super-readers tend to have an extremely large vocabulary but not actually know how to pronounce all the words they know the meanings and spellings of. I had a friend in high school (one of the top-ranked students in our class who went to top Ivy League schools for undergraduate and graduate schools) who didn’t know until junior year that the word rebels is pronounced REbuls and not REEbuls. I myself have had that problem. I learned the words deny and renege from a comic book called Power Man and Iron Fist, but I thought they were pronounced DEnee (instead of deeNAI) and REnegeh (instead of reeNEG). If you watch the movie Trekkies, you’ll see one Star Trek-obsessed fan make this blunder several times during the documentary.

The acquisition and application of language is a fascinating thing, and I’ve loved writing about it. Now, let me go back and proofread this sucker…