Monday, April 28, 2008

An Embarrassing Admission

Despite three degrees in English and despite being the chair of a department of such, I am a terrible speller. I blame the convergence of two phenomena:
  1. A near-lifetime study of Middle English, that happy go lucky linguistic intermezzo when the rules of proper spelling hadn't been invented yet;
  2. My own hastiness, prompted these days by having to answer so much email that to do so efficiently would prove only that I am an automoton.
Over the weekend I sent out an email invitation to GW's graduating English majors, inviting them and their families to a reception and champagne toast. The patina of poshness that "champagne toast" imbues to any invitation was immediately eroded by a subject line that included the words "English Deapartment Reeception." Yesterday I was compelled to send a follow up email:
Those weren't typos in the subject line of yesterday's message. "English Deapartment Reeception" is the Middle English spelling. Those of you who have taken my Chaucer class will have realized that fact immediately; those who have not may now think I obtained my PhD from an online offshore institution.

Errors in typing or not, the reception for graduating seniors truly is on Saturday, 17 May from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in Rome Hall 771. The theme will be "Your BA in English Does Not Necessarily Make You an Able Speller." I look forward to meeting your families and friends then.

-- The Deapartment Chear
Back to grading those papers. And yes, I will be deducting points for misspelled words ... or, knowing me, words that are correctly spelled but do not seem so to my hasty, Middle English addled eyes.

[cross posted to GW English News]


Eileen Joy said...

Wot is rong with u, Jophrrey?

Dr. Virago said...

I am so glad to know I am not alone. And I blame ME, too! I'm especially crap at anything with a French suffix -- for example -ance or -ence. It didn't matter to ME, why should it matter now?

Anonymous said...

Being a medievalist doesn't help my confusion, but mostly I blame American imperialism and Bill Gates' aspirations to world domination which tries to force me to use US English as my default spelling even though it is so clearly wrong!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I can't spell worth a fig, and I no longer let it bother me. I'm a professional writer with more than a thousand published articles and reviews, and without spellcheck I'd be lost. I used to chalk it up to the transition from UK to US spelling, but that's a cop-out. It's just something I can't do. Is there some name for well-read people who work with words and write daily and still can't spell? Maybe spellicitis. I'd feel better if I could tell people it was a syndrome. Then they're nod sagely and suddenly catch it.

Anonymous said...

Given the discussions of cannibalism on the blog, at least you didn't type that you looking forward to "meating" anybody at the Deapartment reception...

And to second and third the comments, my spelling is crud as well, especially in quick things like emails or paper comments (which, argh, are the most public mistakes to make and the least likely to see further editorial intervention). I wonder if there's a connection between improvisational spelling and a desire to think deeply about texts...


Susan said...

I want a department chear! In fact, I suggest that all departments need a chear. I do 17th c stuff, and it completely ruined my ability to tell when something "looks right" or not.

i said...

Yes! I know what you mean. In fact, my situation is even stranger.... up to and including my BA in English, my spelling was perfect, or nearly so. A few graduate degrees later, and it's shot to pieces. Nevermind the fact that I actually used to be able to articulate why things were right or wrong grammatically.

I blame it on my HEL orals topic and a growing belief in descriptive linguistics.

Matt said...

Er, by "automoton" do you mean "automaton"?

I hate myself for sending this post, I really do, but it's the OCD talking. Makes me wonder, though, how the old & middle E writers dealt with their OCD since they couldn't agonize on spelling. (Though the alliterative long line was absorbing enough...)


Jeffrey Cohen said...


Just proving that I can SOMETIMES spell.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the world's greatest speller myself and I've noticed how misspelling really discredits one with the students. It IS particularly difficult to spell on a blackboard. For one thing you're rushed, for another, you lack perspective. Anyhow, I remember when I first started teaching. I was about 24 and it was a private college. We were looking at "To an Athlete Dying Young". I started to write the title on the board and suddenly had a brain cramp on "athlete". I wrote "athelete" and looked out at the class with a thoughtful expression. Most of the kids had no idea what was going on, but one girl in the third row was watching carefully. Our eyes met and she shook her head. I erased the word and respelled it. The next day the girl wasn't there. She dropped the class. Now I always get a little jittery when I have to spell "athlete".

Karl Steel said...

I can dive in quickly here. It's funny, first, how so many of us consider ourselves bad spellers, and second, how many of us look to some systemic or structural trauma--including the trauma of Middle English pollution--for explanation. Maybe bad spelling is just the norm?

I've offered the following excuses for my bad spelling: a) reading too fast: I once claimed that I spelled badly because I read only first few syllables of each word. Anyone who heard this claim (made c. 1998) still mocks me about it, sometimes by writing me email comprising only the first few syllables of words (some by write me e com on the first syl of words); b) Middle English (of course); c) 4th grade spelling bee, where everyone else was losing on the word 'weigh': my turn, and I spelled w-e-i-g-h confidently, and then the teacher asked "is that all?" My confidence shaken, I added an "e," and my confidence--or so I've decided in an apres coup--never recovered.

I tried to get matters going again by attending an spelling bee at a local bar for a while. ALK was routinely a champion; me? Not so much so (see this article from a 2005 edition of the New York Times, which preserved only the most inane of my explanations).

Claytonian said...

I feel for ya brothere