Dan Quayle is a nice guy.  He did not deserve the flack he caught when he misspelled the word "potato" on a visit to a school when he was Vice President of the United States.  He added an extra "e" at the end, to make it "potatoe."  


         Well, as it turns out, he was not totally wrong.    None other than the great British author George Bernard Shaw once suggested that “potato” should be spelled “ghoughpteighbteau.”  “p” as in hiccough; “o” as in though; “t” as in ptomaine; “a” as in neigh; “t” as in debt; and “o” as in bureau.

            Mr. Shaw is the same person who suggested that “fish” should be spelled “ghoti.”  “gh” as in enough, “o’ as in women, and “ti” as in nation.

            His point, of course, was that there’s something crazy about the spelling of the English language.  There are rules and guidelines (“I” before “e” except aftet “c”), but there are always exceptions (like seize, neither, weird, and either.)

            Most of us can understand Mr. Quayle’s confusion with “potato.”  His answer card showed “potatoe” as the correct spelling and, after all, if you have more than one spud you have “potatoes” don’t you?

            It was a simple error that became a hot potato for a few days until most people realized that they would probably have made the same mistake.  Mr. Quayle’s supporters quoted Mark Twain saying, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can spell a word only one way.”

            It’s a rare individual who doesn’t misspell a word once in a while.  As a matter of fact, “misspell” is one of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language.  Many writers will tend to omit the second “s.”  What about this word:  embarass, embarras, or embarrass?  Only Webster and your spell checker know for sure. 

            The word “spell” comes from the Old French word “espeler,” which can be traced to an ancient definition of “to tell.”  The Germanic peoples of the late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages were so fascinated by writing that they endowed letters with magical properties.  Thus “spelling” or “telling” letters was synonymous with casting “spells.”

            There’s really no black magic involved.  It’s just that the English language has evolved through so many centuries and from so many other languages.  The English didn’t always take their spelling so seriously.

            Geoffrey Chaucer certainly isn’t famous for correct spelling in his work of the 14th century.  American humorist Artemus Ward said, “It’s a pity that Chawcer, who had geneyus, was so unedicated;  he’s the wuss speller I know of.”

            Even William Shakespeare paid little attention to any rules, mainly because there were none.  He signed his own name with two or three variations of spelling.

            Shakespeare and Chaucer had the advantage of living in an age before English became so formal and inflexible in it usage.  They earned their literary fame long before everyone became so persnickety about spelling.

            It was 200 years after Shakespeare that English teachers started taking off when you wrote “truely” instead of “truly” or “butiful” instead of “beautiful.”

            From time to time there have been attempts to make our language more consistent in its spelling structure.  But nothing yet has caught on.  Maybe, as Eva March Tappan wrote, it’s our cross to bear:

            There was fastened a name to every nook,    

            And every boy with a spelling book

            Will have to toil till his hair turns gray

            Before he can spell them the proper way. 




A Spell of Trouble