The Friday Fillip: Speling

I’ve never understood why the winners of spelling bees get lauded and labelled as smart or intelligent. That kind of skill is on a par with remembering the names and dates of all of Canada’s prime ministers, though fractionally more useful I suppose. “Mackenzie Bowell,” you announce. “December 21st, 1894 to April 27th, 1896.” No one is going to marvel, “Mind like a razor.” I guess I should disclose that I was a lousy speller and that Mrs. Hill, my grade 12 English teacher had to threaten me with failure if I didn’t learn to spell. It only irritated her when I pointed out that Shakespeare couldn’t — didn’t — spell. Even to this day I have to do the “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ and when sounding like ‘eh’ in ‘neighbour’ and ‘weigh'” thing and find I must write out “wierd” and “weird” to see which looks nicer.

Of course, spell checkers have eliminated much of the problem, though having had both an English and an American education I’m caught between two dictionary databases, neither of which captures Canadian practices exactly right. Just the other day someone emailed me to let me know that I’d written, of all things, “skeptical.” Or was it “sceptical”?

And then there are those hilarious auto-correction mistakes that your smart phone will make for you as you triple-thumb your way through a quick text. How “googled” gets turned into “fondled” I’ve no idea.

So when I take all of this together, I don’t know quite how I feel about the fact that Google’s planning to go contextual when it comes to spell-checking your Google docs. This will be an extension of that fairly irritating Mrs. Hill who asks, when you put in a Google query, “Did you mean ‘fodder’?” It’s really for folks who can spell okay but whose careless minds have trouble with homonyms: “Let’s meat for coffee.” It’ll be handy, I suppose, for those nonce terms and the names of rock bands you can’t quite remember.

By now, you’re patting yourself on the back for being a pretty decent speller, I’ll bet. If so, you might like to take the online Oxford Dictionaries Spelling Challenge. (You’ll need your audio. Think about it.) I warn you, I passed the lowest level (“Tricky”) of English (not “American”) with flying colours. Good luck with “Difficult” and “Fiendish” (not “Feindish”).

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