The Compulsive Copyeditor

July 1, 2009

Spelling as Archaeology

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving,spelling — amba12 @ 5:20 pm

You people are getting me going.

Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule.  If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?

I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling.  (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958.  So there.)  You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression.  Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices.  If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.

But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling.  Love it.  It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language.  You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon.  There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.”  If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.”  There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too:  you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.”  I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.

It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds.  But it is beautiful.



  1. Oh, my amba … you are so right. (Or is it “wright”? lol) I will forever now refer to myself as an autistic-savant-like speller.

    I have three children who inherited the gene, and one who couldn’t (bless his heart) spell his way out of a paper bag. Yet, he was the one I would designate as the “smartest” of the lot.

    Now, if we could just figure out how to get people to get the punctuation around the word “however” correct.

    Comment by kay — July 1, 2009 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

    • My family’s like that too — some of us spell like we breathe, some of us can’t, and it has nothing to do with anything else!

      Comment by amba12 — July 1, 2009 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

  2. While I appreciate the sentiment, I do rather wish Samuel Johnson had not been of like mind. We owe to him, most appropriately, the “b” in debt. When he was compiling his seminal dictionary, he decided the b was necessary as a nod to the Latin “debitum” despite the fact that we acquired the word through the French “dette”. That is seriously too much of a good thing.

    Part of me wishes for a comprehensive spelling reform, but it isn’t going to happen. English is too international, with no governing body similar to “L’Académie de la langue française” that can pontificate on what is correct and what isn’t. With no unique standard and no recognized authority, it just can’t happen. English will continue to just muddle along, and probably evolve into several other languages, much as it always has. It’s a regular flea market of treasures and eyesores.

    Comment by Janet — July 1, 2009 @ 6:23 pm | Reply

  3. […] It includes not only modern and cutting-edge English, but all those delicious historical layers we alluded to recently: With 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words organised into more than 230,000 categories and […]

    Pingback by Twice the Size of Roget’s! « The Compulsive Copyeditor — July 11, 2009 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

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