The 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee will be held at the end of May, giving us the opportunity to behold adolescent contestants spelling out the likes of “crustaceology,” “guetapens” and “euonym.” But has the ability to spell well become a specialized skill, best left to such youthful spelling whizzes who have been prepped to reel off “serdab,” “galjoen” and other words that don’t exactly enter into the daily vocabularies of most of us?
In an age of autocorrect and spell check, does spelling still matter? Yes, and here are some reasons it does.
1. The spelling and meaning of a word are linked.
The purpose of the Bee is, as Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, says, not only to help students on their spelling but also to “increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”
Kimble’s statement is an explanation of why, for the first time at the Bee, contestants must (besides, of course, spelling words correctly and taking a computer-based spelling test) pass a multiple-choice vocabulary test, before they advance to the latter rounds of competition. The Bee’s organizers are reinforcing this point: being able to spell a word without knowing its definition means you literally know its letters but not its spirit.
2. Computer programs and technological tools are not infallible.
Spell check and other computer and technological innovations do have their purpose. I more than appreciate how such tools clean up the errors and typos I make when typing fast. But there are plenty of words you can’t count on spell check to note including feel/flee, tear/year, Untied States/United States. Even if you use spell check, you still must proofread!
That said, in more than two decades of teaching college students writing, literature and ancient languages, I’ve become more and more attuned to how being dyslexic and/or having learning disabilities can make spelling extra challenging. While certainly encouraging everyone to learn to spell is important , it’s very good that such techtools now exist, as well as greater understanding that the reason a child can’t spell isn’t because he or she isn’t “trying.”
3. Search engines pick up on some, but not all, misspellings.
Search engines do catch some misspellings, but not every single one. More than a few items on sites such as eBay go unsold because the sellers misspell their names. A single letter can make a difference. A few years ago, the inability of government search tools to find simple misspellings led to an intelligence failure regarding Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underpants bomber.”
4. Spelling teaches us about the origins and history of words.
Words have “history and baggage,” as Kory Stamper writes in the Guardian. They are “not merely arbitrary strings of letters that pop into existence ex nihilo.” Rather, look at a word’s history and etymology and you can find out much about its origins and varied meanings. Two examples that Stamper notes are “mack daddy,” defined as a “pimpalicous man who gets anything he wants”; it originates ultimately from the medieval Dutch word “mākelaer,” meaning “broker.” “Futz” means to “fool around” and has origins in the Yiddish arumfartsn zikh, which literally means to (ahem) “fart around.”
5. Knowing how to spell is a sign of being informed and attentive.
It’s one thing to make a spelling error on an elementary school test or an email to a friend. But when a politician or other public figure makes an outlandish spelling error, it suggests that someone doesn’t quite have everything under control. Mitt Romney’s iPhone app that spelled “America” wrong is but one example.
6. Correct spelling is a sign of respect.
Getting the spelling right on people’s names can show that you’ve taken the time to make an extra effort, whether emailing a colleague or writing a note to a child’s teacher.
A small case in point: my first name is Kristina. Many have been the times I’ve seen myself referred to as “Christine” but rare have been the times that someone has asked if there’s a certain way to spell it. (Yes, I really appreciate it when people do.)
7. Creative spelling has its uses.
If you know the rules, you also know how to break them. In fact, out of a desire to be “ungoogleable,” some people are devising names with unusual spellings that are difficult to find via Internet search engines.
An odd spelling can attact attention: how many companies’ names or products aren’t spelled quite right? Consider these: Quik Chek, Bratz and… Google.
Do you think spelling matters?
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