Why is it, I imagine her asking us the crowd, that we accept inventive spelling on Madison Avenue but not on high school term papers? Lite beer, rite aid, krispy kreme, citibank, sunkist, toys r us, qwest. Sure, they look odd without the capital letters and brand-associated fonts, but they’re just words—our words—spiced up on behalf of some multinational corporation. So when will t-h-r-u for through get the official OK from high school English teachers? After all, Google doesn’t even notice a difference between supersede and supercede. Fist in the air, the hipster lady says we need to reclaim our orthographic creativity. Then she gets the crowd chanting: Down with spelling neocons!
My next word is icebound, a lucky break except that it’s accompanied by resentful looks from previously eliminated contestants who drew harder words—so much for laid-back Portland.
Icebound: i-c-e-b-o-u-n-d. Icebound.
I should be thrilled, but instead I feel like I’m rock climbing without a rope, ascending toward an even bigger—which is to say humiliating—fall.
The rounds continue. Kilderkin, meiobars, homuncular, dyscalculia. This last one grabs my attention, because I had spent some time looking into the relationship between spelling and dyslexia. (“Dyscalculia: from Latin and Greek, impairment of mathematical ability due to an organic condition of the brain.”) A slightly frenetic woman wearing a yellow Portland Spelling Bee Champion T-shirt mentions to the audience that she’s a grade-school science teacher. She sits down again, but in my mind she’s halfway into a sermon about how children nowadays are doing horribly in math and science, while every year the emphasis on (and pop-adoration of) spelling bees continues to intensify.
Scarifier, macrophagous, nephrolithotomy. My next word is odori, a type of Japanese dance. When I hear the word it occurs to me that I might actually win this thing. Because I lived in Japan for a few years, I happen to know that with Japanese words written out in English, what you hear is almost invariably what you get.
Odori: o-d-o-r-i. Odori.
With that, I’m now one of just five remaining contestants, including the overzealous former champion and two older gentlemen, one of whom sips a drink from a tumbler. The other is a confessed word maniac and former law professor from Salem.
In the bee taking place in my imagination, the professor speaks lucidly to the crowd. He is a word nerd to the nth degree, waxing on about language’s constant evolution. For centuries people have been whining about English’s descent into barbarity, he lectures, perpetually captivated by a fantasy of a more refined English of bygone eras. Like it or not, modern-day slang and txtng aren’t crushing the English of Chaucer or Shakespeare, the professor says. They’re merely the latest chapters in the centuries-old tradition of linguistic playfulness, a tradition that people like Chaucer and Shakespeare were very much a part of.
Although spelling changes don’t occur as rapidly as, say, neologisms, they are happening nonetheless. Hiccup was once spelled hiccough, subtle was once sutil, and maybe, just maybe, altho will someday replace although. It was the linguist Anthony Burgess who once said: “When we think we are making an objective judgment about language, we are often merely making a statement about our prejudices.” Our tastes about language may be immovable, but the language itself is not.