Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mortification of Words

Mortification is a great word. It is the consummate expression of embarrassment coupled with a wish to die. For me, the great piler-up-of-words, mortification comes when one of those delectable morphemes that I have so carefully chosen proves to be egregiously misspelled.

I have actually felt this way was since I was a boy. I wanted everything that I wrote to be correct and fully comprehensible. Often I would ask my mother, my father, or someone else close to me, “How do you spell this word?” Invariably the response was, “Look it up in the dictionary; that is what it is for”. As I look back on it, there could have been no stupider response to my request than that one. The last time I checked, the dictionary was arranged alphabetically. In order to find the word, you actually had to know how to spell it. If you wanted to find the word “psychosis”, yet knew nothing about the abomination known as the “silent p”, you could spend an enormous amount of time flailing about in the "C" and "S" sections, trying to find the thing. A dictionary is primarily a repository for meaning, not spelling, and even then the meaning is dependent upon the year in which the dictionary was published. Let me give you an example.

The words “tempest” and “storm” are clearly related words, almost synonyms. In fact, in my Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), each word is used to define the other. In Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), however, there is a distinct difference between “storm” and “tempest”, the former being a blustery weather pattern unaccompanied by precipitation. That is to say, if there is rain, hail, sleet, or snow, you have no “storm” but a “tempest”. Thus, “rainstorms”, “hailstorms”, and “snowstorms” were all considered lexical abominations in 1829. How the mighty are fallen!

But I digress.

So the counsel to resort to the dictionary in order to discover the correct spelling of a word fell on deaf ears. What to do? I grew up in an era of pencils. There were no ball point pens to speak of, and the school administrators no longer trusted the students with inkwells and quills. We had places for them in our desks, but we never used them. I suppose that there were legions of young girls with black-tipped pigtails who all grew up to be school teachers and then demanded pencils for the boys as soon as they became available. The use of pencils and the demand for hand-written assignments provided a wonderful loophole for those of us who were orthographically challenged.

My hand-writing has been almost illegible since the 1st grade. My teachers insisted that I write all of my letters between the light blue lines printed on the worksheets that they gave to me. I cannot recall the exact problem that I had, but I failed miserably and each corrective measure that my teachers took only made matters worse. By the time I was in sixth grade, the educational system had given up on me and I was commonly known as “Scrawl-boy” throughout the rest of the time that I attended the Chino Unified School District. I used this to my advantage. As I was composing my assignment, if I happened upon a word that I did not know how to spell, I caused my handwriting to become just a little more “scrawlly”, thus leaving the teacher to decide whether I had actually misspelled the word or if she was simply incapable of reading my hand. Interestingly enough, most of my teachers assumed that I knew what I was doing. Even more interesting is the fact that the ruse worked until I was almost finished with college.

The other side of the loophole of the pencil-scrawl syndrome was the nature of the medium. The only time I ever had my feet held to the lexical fire was in ten-grade English. We had weekly vocabulary tests the object of which was to demonstrate that we knew how to spell the ten words given to us at the beginning of the week. My friend Billy and I sat in the front seats of the two left-hand rows of the classroom. After the quiz, the teacher would say, “Okay, exchange papers with the person next to you and correct each other’s spelling”. Billy and I did EXACTLY that, using the erasers cleverly placed at the ends of our pencils (we had the same first-grade teacher; no serious forgery was necessary). As a result, we were considered the best spellers in the class, until the time came for the annual spelling bee.

Obviously, there came a time when these deceptions would no longer work. Upper division classes in college required typed papers. My Master’s thesis could not be written in pencil. My Doctoral program required a major publishable tome. I passed through a thousand hells trying to catch up.

Today I am somewhat noted for my vocabulary. My colleagues at Utah Valley State University frequently referred to me as the “Word Maven” and I would oblige them by posting a “Word for the Week” on the wall outside of my office. The practice apparently had some entertainment value inasmuch as the corridor was frequently packed with spectators trying to improve their semantic agility. The down side of this increased facility with the English language is that my spell-checker (the modern equivalent to my friend Billy and his eraser) is frequently confounded by my word choice, desiring to change perfectly good words into contextual gibberish. I keep my eye on the little villain. From time to time an editor will chide me for the use of a word. Most of the time I simply fire back a scathing retort, declaring in no uncertain terms that I am not in the practice of “dumbing-down” my prose.

Even so, I find myself mortified from time to time. A week or so ago, I prepared a manuscript to be reviewed in a refereed competition. I originally wrote the text many years ago, but decided that it would serve well under the circumstances. I had read the manuscript repeated times and felt that the narrative was error-free. I printed the text, stuffed it into the manila envelope, scrawled the editor’s name on the cover, and set it aside to be posted. For whatever reason, I decided to reread the file on the computer and found another five errors. Admittedly they were minor typographical problems which would probably not be noticed by anyone reading the piece, but I was horrified. I made the corrections on the computer, reprinted the paper, opened the envelope and exchanged the pages. I can hardly wait for the reply.

For those of you who will now parse my blogs in order to uncover mortifications, I wish you luck. It’s a waste of time. I have ways of dealing with those who think to grab me by the chin-hairs. I will ultimately refer you to Webster’s Third REALLY New International Dictionary (Unabridged, 2014), wherein the supposed misspelling will appear in all of its glory.


shydandelion said...

Ha ha ha! That was highly entertaining!
You have to know that your children are experiencing the effects of you and mom being literate...I too often have people asking me what the words I say mean.
Of course, this IS Utah...

Katscratchme said...

New Mexico is just as confounded by my word choices. The ladies I worked with at my last job were constantly asking me what the word "education" meant...
However, I seem to recall a certain dad in my life using that same exact phrase when I asked how a word was spelled... "Go look it up in the dictionary."
I'm convinced that the translation was "Uhhhh... I don't remember."

Zaphod said...

Some parental duties just never change!

Rebecca said...

now... I have modified my response to only use look it up in the dictionary if I use a word they don't understand... my children just look at me blankly

sometimes its just easier to explain yourself or to just spell it for them.