He who spelt it: Gene defends orthographic freedom

Gene Weingarten
Columnist May 23, 2013

Today I once again wage war on the Language Nazis, those nattering nerds of negativity who contend that the Internet has ushered in an age of bad writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the Internet makes a Published Author out of anyone who wants to be, and most of those people are not, say, Saul Bellow. But that doesn’t mean they are bad writers. It’s just a different sort of writing, one that should be celebrated on its own terms. In fact, the whole phenomenon needs an official curator. Ahem.

Today, we shall focus mostly on spelling.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

The New Shakspurian Model

Ask yourself this: How can writing possibly be getting worse if it is becoming more like that of Shakespeare, who could never quite figure out how to spell his own name. Under the modern tyranny of book and newspaper editors, people’s names were required to have only one boring, agreed-upon, cookie-cutter spelling. Thankfully, the Internet has revived the more exciting Stratfordian model.


(By Eric Shansby)

Consider Mahatma Gandhi, or, as he is known to fully a third of the Internet-published writers who cite him, Mahatma Ghandi. This spelling has appeared on the Web 44,000,000 times, which is more often than has the correct spellings of Picasso, Kierkegaard and Liebniz combined. Likewise, in the entire Western Hemisphere, there are fewer followers of the religion of Buddha than there are people online who have spelled it “Buddah.”

Hey, Language Nazis: Do you like the cool 1 million hits on your boy “Adolph” Hitler? Didn’t think so.

(And last: Based on a quick, non-scientific sampling of the Web, I am ready to declare that until this very moment no one has ever correctly spelled both “Friedrich” and “Nietzsche” in the same sentence.)

Woahfully Inadequate

The Web is often credited with creating an impressive new lexicon of tech-related words, but that’s only half the story of its power to neologize. The Web also democratizes language, bending it sternly to the will of the masses. There is no better example than the sudden existence and more sudden ubiquity of “woah.”

“Woah” is a teenager, a word born on the Web in the 1990s. Initially, it was a deliberate, ironic recasting of “whoa,” as if to emphasize a slap-to-the-forehead moment so startling that spelling becomes its first casualty. It turns out, however, that while the Web feasts on words, its diet has an extreme irony deficiency. And so in no time “woah” has simply been adopted as a new spelling of the old word, with its usage skewing demographically young. (I confirmed this with a quick survey of “woah” users, none of whom had ever heard of “whoa” and thought I was either kidding or just very, very old and cranky. I might as well have been telling them it’s not “pants,” it’s “pantaloons.”)

“Woah” still has fewer hits than “whoa,” but not for long. However, in another exciting development in h-o-a variability: “Pharoah,” the robustly misspelled term for the ancient Egyptian king, has now exactly equaled in Web presence the technically correct “pharaoh.” The two lines are crossing right now, the intersection of a big, fat X. The future is not in doubt.

Eeeeee!

How thoroughly has the Web liberated spelling from the soulless confines of conformity? Thoroughly enough to withstand a national spelling lesson.

The most famous misspelling in American history is “potatoe,” immortalized when the vice president of the United States corrected a schoolkid who had spelled it correctly. The whole country laughed at Dan Quayle’s thunderous stupidity, presumably including some of the 2 million-plus Published Authors who spell it “potatoe” today.

Please stick with us for the next installment of Curating the Internet, where I will establish that the phrase “nothing can be further from the truth,” used 6 million times, is always a lie.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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