I’m not a spelling bee. I think the reason I’m not a tiptop speller (well, apart from maybe the more obvious reason) has to do with sound and pronunciation, where sound is what we hear, and pronunciation is how we repeat what we think we heard.
I remember President Bush bedeviled for misspelling tomato, or maybe it was potato. I remember he was in Florida. Why do I recall he was in Florida, at a grammar school, but I’m not sure of the mot juste he abused? That’s probably a misuse of mot juste; I don’t care – I like the way the ooze comes together in juste abuse. Is misspelling word abuse? In any case, and while I was not and am not a G. W. Bush fan (including his paintings, which I did not like not because they were poorly drawn – in fact, they were quite modern – but because they were so narcissistic, selfie obsessed. At the same time, they gave me pause to think about form and content, particularly the one where he was taking a bath – or was it a shower? – because I’ve always been confused by the form and content business: form, apparently, man in tub; content might have been improved with a plumber at work fixing the toilet while the implacable Bush continues his bath), the news story of Bush’s misspelling boo-boo (to wit: tomatoe or potatoe) I found unworthy of sarcasm or cynicism, and I did not join the spelling bee buzz of hecklers making fun of him.(see correction note below.)
For one thing, I don’t hear the second t in tomato, and if I were going to misspell it, I would probably write tomadoe. Probably that’s yet another reason why I’ll never be a POTUS. Bush’s misspelling was perfect because it’s the same misspelling millions of Americans make every day (or would make, if they were asked to spell tomato), so there was instant populist empathy for him, and it was a chance for the populists to go fsst to the academic snob spelling bees. The academic stings but once. There’s a good reason I hear a d in tomato: /təˈmādō/ – that’s how it’s pronounced. On the other hand (or ear), I do not hear a d in potato, even though potato, like tomato, is pronounced with one: /pəˈtādō/.
You might be thinking I can’t spell because I can’t pronounce, but you’d be a step short if you didn’t acknowledge I can’t pronounce because I don’t hear the same sounds you do. On my own, left to my own devices, I’m in fact a perfect spelling bee. There will always be those who rush to correct (jab, jab, jab, as Susan says) or who think to be a spelling bee is to be a smart bee, when it simply means to be a drone. Like the artist whose painting is as accurate as a photograph but unimaginative, the spelling bee is productive but hackneyed.
Words in all their dress and display should surprise us – startle, chortle, spark the double take.
Spell check, by the way, while helpful, is not a solution. You don’t learn to spell using spell check. In fact, spell check often makes matters worse. Did you mean spell-check? Did you mean spellcheck? Some will argue that’s not a spelling issue. And (underline the right word following) they’re there their probably right. Which is why I’ve been working on mindfulness. Perhaps I meant spill chick, or spoil choke, but chuck it all, anyway. I know how to spell, believe it or not, delete, though I take no delight in it.
I’ve developed Minefoolnest © as a self-improvement program designed to improve both your spelling and your overall attention to text. It’s a program for language misfits, those who, like me, hear words in sounds and sounds in words, often, not the same words and sounds others hear.
Correction: Reader John Dockus (see comments below) has identified Vice President Dan Quayle as the miscreant misspeller of potato, and not Bush, not Florida, and not tomato. Would that there were a fact-checker as well as a spell-checker. Leave it to readers to do both for you, and this is what you get! Thanks, John. The Toads blog regrets the error.