It was cold outside, but there was hot competition in the school auditeria for folks who had come to an old-fashioned orthography contest, known worldwide as a "spelling bee."  Yes, orthography is a word that might have come up in the competition.  It comes from the Greek "ortho" (correct) and "graphein" (writing.)


     I had the honor of serving as the “pronouncer” for the event.  The room we were in was called the “auditeria” since it served as both an auditorium and cafeteria.   It was a new word to me.  I had also encountered quite a number of new words on the spelling list which, thankfully, had been sent to me in advance.  Let‘s just say that the dictionary came in very handy as I prepared to pronounce many words which had never before crossed my lips.  

      The spellers for the evening had already conquered their individual classrooms. Now they were vying for the school championship.  The contest started out reasonably enough, with words like “quickstep” and “stitch” and “campaign.” Hardly anyone was tripped up by these.  But then the bar was raised a bit and we got into words like “furlough” and “modicum” and “halcyon.”  

     They were smart kids, but soon many were falling victim to words like “epiphany“” and “soliloquy” and “cyanosis.”  In fact, it was “cyanosis” that determined the winner that night.  The term refers to a condition caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood.  The young lady who correctly spelled it advanced to district competition.  District winners competed in state competition, and state champs headed to Washington, D.C. for the National Spelling Bee.  

     The previous year’s championship match was broadcast on network television. The winner walked away with $12,000 and other prizes.  The word which decided the contest was “pococurante.”  It means “an unworried or indifferent person.”  It’s a safe bet that there are no pococurantes among the bright youngsters taking part in spelling bees across the country.  They take their orthography seriously.

     There are those who say that knowing how to spell correctly is not so important anymore.  After all, we have computer spellcheckers which theoretically make Noah Websters out of all of us.  The theory doesn’t hold, though.  The vagaries of spelling in the English language are more than even the best computer can master, and the spellchecker often fails to catch obvious errors.  It doesn’t care whether you spell it “naval” or “navel,” but there’s an ocean of difference in meaning .  It cheerfully passes on wrong uses of  “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” too.  And it will let you spell “too” with one or two “o’s” without raising a fuss.  

     Even when the spellchecker flags a word, a lot of folks evidently click on “ignore.”  A  study of spelling on the internet discovered plenty of errors.  The word “minuscule” was misspelled 68 percent of the time.  Others near the top of the list were “embarrassment,” “accommodate,” “noticeable,” and “questionnaire.”  

     Speaking of the internet, it turns out that it really does pay to be a good speller.  Or, more precisely, poor spelling will cost you money if you are selling on eBay, the huge internet auction service.  There are shoppers who prowl the listings for items which are misspelled and, therefore, overlooked by many customers.

      A case cited in the New York Times involved a box of gears which were listed as “gers.”  Since few gear shoppers saw the ad, someone got it for $2.  Relisted under the proper spelling, the same box sold for $200.  There are legions of bargain hunters who are inserting “labtop computers” and “dimonds” into the eBay search engine hoping to reap low-cost laptops and diamonds from people who are sellers but not spellers.

     As I stalk eBay for “Tiffunny” lamps and  “Rollex” watches,  I am looking forward to seeing the National Spelling Bee on television.  I will play along as far as I can, until a word like “prestidigitator” or “jicama” comes along.  In the meantime, let’s all be more alert to words that are mispelled (no) -misspeled (no) - misspelled (that‘s it.)


Orthography can

"Bee" Fun!