Monday, January 23, 2012

All spelled out for you

All week in schools across Van Wert County and all over the region, dozens of students have stood with sweaty palms and quivering stomachs awaiting their word. Yes it’s spelling bee time again. A time where ordinary middle school-aged kids memorize the spelling of rare and obtuse words in hopes they have memorized the words that will become their word when the day of the bee comes along.
As a good student in school, I enjoyed the challenge of the spelling bee -- and the competition. As a fifth grader, I wanted to show up the older kids. As a sixth and seventh grader, I wanted to uphold my reputation. Then as an eighth grader, I wanted to get it all over with. Can you guess which year I didn’t win?
Full disclosure: I won the spelling bee for my age group at my school three times out of four years. I never won the county spelling bee, but I had three good showings. That fourth year I must have blocked from my memory. I only remember missing a word during the school competition and the expression on the pronouncer’s face when the three-time defending champion blew the spelling of an easy word. I always lost on easy words, not the ones that nobody should be able to spell. I lost one year by misspelling a three-letter word and another year it was a four-letter word. (No, not any of those words that you just thought of.)
I remember sitting alone in my bedroom with a small booklet containing the official word list of the spelling bee. These books were put out by the national sponsor of the event. The cover was orange with cartoonish bees all over it. Inside, the words were listed in columns and in groups of ten. The book itself was divided into three sections: Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced. Let me tell you right now that the words in that Advanced section are all made up. That’s my theory anyway. At one time the sponsor made up a whole new section of words like smaragdine, hydrophyte, maculature, xanthosis, and chiaroscurist. Yes, those are spelling bee words. Those are winning words from the national competition over the years. The winning word is not the word the second place speller missed. The winning word is the word the winner spells after he or she has correctly spelled the word the other kid messed up. When we played H-O-R-S-E with a basketball on the playground, we would call this “proving it.” In a spelling bee, the winning round only serves to prolong the agony. After all, isn’t it silly to think that in round after round of spelling that anyone would have to “prove it” by spelling another word for no apparent reason?
Anyway, I learned the Easy spelling bee words without a lot of difficulty. There were a few tricky ones, but that section wasn’t too bad. My goal was to learn all of the words in the Intermediate section. There were some toughies there. Each year I could spell roughly 80 percent of that section, and I stood a chance at getting lucky on the remaining 20 percent. Close enough.
In a twist of fate, I began my career I was a radio broadcaster where the spelling of a word doesn’t really matter. You just have to pronounce it correctly. Now, as a newspaper editor, I have to become a walking Spell Check. But in newspapers, we can pronounce it wrong provided we spell it correctly. I’ve made the trip from one end of the spectrum to another.
But does good spelling really matter? In an age where texting and online communication seem to have a unique shorthand language that defies everything I learned in the spelling bee book, people laugh at the need to spell correctly. As a writer, I have never needed to spell chiaroscurist (aside from earlier in this column), but if I do it will be spelled correctly. It is important. Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it.

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