Minefoolnest & Other Misfits

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.


A Portrait of the Plumber as a Poor Speller; or, Wrong Word

When my father first asked me if I wanted to follow him into the plumbing trade, I’d already been helping him on jobs for several years. I knew the names of the tools, could boil lead and poor it into the rope packed pipe joints, run the threading machine, drill holes, dig ditches with the right fall.

But, no, I thought I’d go to school, I told him, and I knew he was disappointed. He could read blueprints, but he put no stock in books. I made my decision to stay in school because I did like books and reading and writers and the whole idea of becoming a writer, as out of focus as that picture might have been, but had I made the decision based on my ability to spell, I might have listened to my dad and become a plumber. Perhaps it’s not too late.

My friend Dan (we were first year teachers at the same school in Venice a long time ago), who just recently started blogging, over at itkindofgotawayfromyou, and reading this blog, surprised me with an email this morning, first wishing us a happy Easter, then pointing out a spelling error in my last post. I couldn’t dismiss the error as a typo. I’d made it three times in the same post. Nor could I blame it on spell-check. It was one of those words that fools spell-check, as it had fooled me. This isn’t the first time Dan has had to help pick me up after a misspelling fall. During that first year of teaching, I had asked Dan to read something I had written. He did, and when he gave it back, he said I’d typed “your” where I wanted “you’re,” though an error like that often might be a typo; still, the proofreading eye needs to spot the error, and not see what it expects to see. Some words need to be unpacked before we hang them to dry on the outside clothesline.

We all have a particular picture of ourselves, but seldom, perhaps, the same picture others have of us. I’ve always pictured Dan as a good speller, and it’s nice to know he hasn’t lost his eye for orthography, though I’m not sure spelling is a question of the eye. But the picture that portrays English majors by definition as good spellers is myth. And reading Dan’s email, I reminded myself, for some consolation, that there’s credible evidence showing some of our best writers were poor spellers. Standard examples include F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could never remember how to spell his friend and Nobel Prize winning writer Hemingway’s name (one m or two?), while Hemingway wasn’t a much better speller, and Faulkner was also a poor speller. Joyce, on the other hand, a good speller, enjoyed creating new words and puns by deliberately misspelling words. Theories of why some can spell and others can’t suggest the brain’s to blame.

It wasn’t long ago my friend Judy invited me to join a spelling bee with her. What treachery was this, I wondered. I knew she was an orthographic genius, and just wanted me along as a foil character. Still, I’m not really such a poor speller, probably just average, is all. I usually get it right, but sometimes lack confidence, and look it up, but find I was right all along. So I went with Judy to the spelling bee, thinking I might get lucky with a few relatively easy ones. No luck. I misspelled on my third word, while Judy won the bee.

My father could not have cared less if I was a good or a poor speller, if I one spelling bees are lost them. He was, on the other hand, somewhat conserned that I became a poor plumber.

Coda: Readers noticing some spelling errors in that last paragraph might be interested in Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error.” It’s not about finding spelling errors, but it is about why some of us see writing errors others don’t, and why others are inclined to see errors we don’t. It’s about writing; spelling is about something else. Moreover, one might argue there’s only one misspelled word in my penultimate paragraph, the other two mistakes being simply wrong words, which, as it turns out, is the error Dan pointed out in my last post, a wrong word in the context, not a misspelled one.


E. B. White and the plumber