The Jeopardy of Bad Spelling

Emanciptation. This was the written proclamation that undid poor Thomas Hurley III in his final round of "Jeopardy" last week. Since then the media and social media have been abuzz with people’s responses to the eighth grader’s heartbreak and the judges’ strict enforcement of the rules. Alex Trebek informed the stricken youngster that the judges were ruling against him because he had misspelled his answer “badly — you put a p in there.” Actually, Alex, the “p” very much belongs in the Latinate word that came into English in the 1620’s from emancipatus, past participle of emancipare, “to declare free.” Young Thomas’s error was to tuck an extra “t” into the word, not a “p.” But we all make mistakes, even the iconic Mr. Trebek. This is the position of roughly half of the people weighing in on places like Facebook. They comprise the Give-The-Kid-A-Break crowd. A slight majority of the population, however, side with the judges, claiming: “Rules are rules.”

Be assured, I am not voting one way or the other on this controversy. But watching the video of young Mr. Hurley’s crushing moment caused me to recall my own feelings as I sat doodling at my grade school desk after early ejection from every spelling bee in which I was ever compelled to participate. I remember feeling even then that the class time devoted to these contests was designed  to make good spellers better spellers, while those of us in our early seats might become good at other things — in my case, cartooning.

To do: Write blog about spellingSo now you know. This professor of English, who has taught writing and literature for thirty years, published a book and scholarly articles along the way, and who writes for and edits a local magazine, was once an atrocious speller. In fact, atrocious was just the sort of word that kept my Webster’s Dictionary close at hand and dog-eared. Perhaps my problem resulted from attending three different schools in three different states in my primary years or maybe that pair of glasses that I got in fourth grade was something I needed since first. No excuses. I forged on. Long before spellcheck I found ways of compensating. By college, I had learned to read all of my essays backwards to discover possible errors in any words with two syllables or more. Matters were not helped in graduate school when I began to specialize in literature written when standardized spelling was still emergent. Whatever the virtues of Shakespeare’s plays and Spenser’s Faerie Queene, they are not good spelling primers. To this day I might freeze in fear at having written a word on the chalkboard that suddenly doesn’t look right. Memory tricks like “possesses possesses many s’s” are part of my survival kit.

One expert called upon to comment on the "Jeopardy" controversy was Simon Horobin, an Oxford scholar and author of the recent book with the scandalous title, Does Spelling Matter? Professor Horobin traces the history of spelling in English, explaining, among other things, how the relatively recent standardizing of spelling evolved with the invention the printing press as a pragmatic necessity, rather than a moral imperative. Like most of us, he believes that correct spelling is an important part of clear and effective communication (his own book so far as I know contains no spelling errors), but Horobin cautions against the kind of zealously pedantic enforcement of correct spelling that can punitively pull rank on a person by presuming a lack of intelligence.

As a self-confessed weak speller who loves the English language and has spent a lifetime teaching it, I echo Professor Horobin’s caution and add this particular concern. A flush-faced young person singled out for having publicly misspelled a word is not very likely to develop the best attitude towards words. This poor attitude will likely be transferred to language in general and might ultimately spur indifference or even hostility towards the thousands of books, essays, poems and speeches that  deploy our language so powerfully and so beautifully.

I am eternally grateful to the teachers I eventually had who opened my imagination to see a magnificence in works of literature that so transcended the technicalities of spelling and grammar that those things became simply tools I needed to live and work in that world. Poor spelling was for me a private and dark confinement. Attentive and empathetic teachers, men and women who had a holistic understanding of language and of students, were my emancipation.