One of the most memorable events of my fairly brief apprenticeship to the craft of journalism back in the 1940s, was a mistake I made for which I received a severe bollocking from an enraged editor. Covering the criminal courts on that day, I had filed my piece on a murder trial and retired to the attic where I was happily playing table tennis, cheerfully defeating my colleague, as I usually did, when a stentorian voice echoed up the stairs, summoning me from below. I entered the editor’s office, where I had seldom been before, and was gruffly asked how the accused in the case I had just covered had pleaded. I had no doubt of the answer. “He pleaded not guilty,” I said.
“Then why did you report that he pleaded guilty?”
His outraged lawyer had just been on the phone, they had already checked the copy, and the fault was mine. By one of those aberrations that overcome everyone from time to time, I had failed on my final read-over of the piece, to notice the omission of the all-important word “not.”
He gave it to me on all barrels, emphasising the humiliation for the paper having to issue a correction on the following day, not to mention the severe possible legal penalties they could suffer if the aggrieved party so desired, and then, when all was done, he dismissed me with the final words, “Oh, well, at least you can spell.”
Indeed, I always have been able to spell. It is something I have rather prided myself on, and it is something that I always tried to insist that my own children should master as an essential item in the armoury behind which they are equipped to defend themselves in their passage through life. At the very least, I have always argued, they don't want to give the impression through making glaring spelling errors, that they are only half-educated.
As far as I can remember, there is only one word that I habitually spelled incorrectly until my mistake was pointed out to me by a meticulous book editor when I was in middle age. That word was “minuscule,” which I had habitually spelled “miniscule.” Self-evident, said my learned editing friend, it derives from “minute”, that’s all you need if you are to remember the correct spelling.
I’ve always felt slightly ashamed of my ignorance in relation to this word until today, when, on looking up the word, I was told by oxforddictionaries.com, whom I take to be the leading authority on English words, that the incorrect spelling is such a pervasive mistake, so often used, that it has almost become, and indeed is in processing of becoming, equally acceptable as the correct spelling, “although,” they added, “at the moment, ‘minuscule’ is still the correct spelling.”
(I have recently noticed that when I am engaged, as I am once or twice a week, in revising my French vocabulary through use of a flash-word exercise left over from the online course I took a few years ago, even in French my spelling is good; I have only to get a quick flash look at a word to remember how to spell it accurately, except --- as in English --- for one pesky, bothersome word that I am damned if I can ever remember --- that is, the French word for rubber --- ‘caoutchouc’ --- such an ostentatious, hateful jumble of vowels with the occasional consonant thrown in, as to escape almost any memory. What a feeble excuse !)
Well, this brings me on to why I am bothering to write this at all : in the last couple of years I find I am having more and more trouble remembering the spelling of words. This especially applies to words with double consonants. Does ‘appearance’ have two p’s ? and how about those words with two double consonants ? Does ‘occurrence’ have two of both c and r ? How about its n ? occurrennce…no that can’t be right. I am getting plenty of practice at revising the spelling of words because I make so many typos nowadays because of the narrow 13-inch keyboard on my laptop, after having spent my entire life on broader keyboards, that the only solution would be to slow up my typing, which has so far proven to be beyond my achievement. Nevertheless, there is hardly a piece that I write nowadays for which I do not have to look up the correct spelling of some word or other, usually some simple word whose spelling I have always known. When I mention it to anyone, they always say they have the same problem, something I can hardly believe.
But then, nowadays younger people have a careless insouciance in relation to their failure to spell : just turn on the spell checker, they say. A year or so ago, checking out the books they jettison from time to time as I was passing the McGill library, I noticed three beautiful dictionaries which so seized my imagination that I picked them all up and manhandled them home, telling myself how pleased my children would be to have them. Oh yeah? They looked at me as if I had lost my marbles. Why would I want a dictionary, they asked? I already have one on my computer. Not a whiff of pride in knowing how to spell, or of shame in not knowing how to spell. The machine has taken over that part of their lives, and they are quite content with it.
I cannot settle to such an insouciance myself. I have a friend called Emily, who, because she speaks perfect English, I assumed would have her name spelled in the English way. So I entered her in my list of contacts, but when she replied to my first email, I discovered she was called Emilie, not Emily. I was always meticulous in addressing her thereafter, but I have so far been unable to correct the spelling in my data base because Google improved their system, since when I have been unable to find my contacts that, under the old system were available at the mere touch of a button. These goddamned technical improvements !
Emilie disappeared some months ago into the caverns of the University of Montreal to study philosophy, and understandably I didn’t hear from her until last week when, mistakenly assuming the scholastic year must be over --- all days are beginning to seem alike to me --- I emailed her to find out how things were going. I had forgotten how she spelled her name exactly, and, being unable to access my contact list, I committed the embarrassing and unforgivable error of addressing her as Emelie. Shades of my old editor and his belief in my spelling prowess. What has happened to me? I can’t even remember a simple given name!
Emilie replied that she is just embarking on her exams. I imagine it will probably be the last time I ever hear from her. My humiliation, my not-being-able-to-spell humiliation, will then be complete.
I can’t spell at last. And the soothing response given by my acquaintances, not wanting to offend me, that maybe it is only because I am 90, do not serve to rescue me. My shame is complete, and, I fear, irrevocable.