The ability to spell correctly is a gift. So is a handpainted Hawaiian necktie. Yet while the offending foulard is quickly consigned to the lowest bureau drawer, correct spellers have come of late to flaunt their vulgar gift in public.
Well, the world will not stop turning because people persist in spelling correctly. There will always be those who speak and write in a small and effete voice, seeking concord with the ordinary and the standard, and all the while offering propaedeutics on the joy of uniformity.
Thomas Jefferson, who took up the violin when he found himself unequal to the cello, was once asked by a flute player why he had never learned a wind instrument. Jefferson replied, "Because a gentleman does not puff out his cheeks to make music."
Neither does a gentleman puff out his cheeks to the square rhythms of orthography. The gentleman could, of course, had he a mind to. He could thumb through dictionaries and resound with pleasure at the confirmation of the probable. He could warm his hands on the flame of consensus. He might, joining many others in pathetic fealty to Goddess Menemosyne, fill his head with the nonsensical memory-aiding parlor-trick rhythm (Ride Hard You Thick-Headed Moron).
He could, but he does not. For he knows that the most robust among us have always been the natural spellers, not the correct spellers.A natural speller makes a gesture toward conformity and then, with the barbaric yawp of Whitman, hastens on to his next thought. The correct speller, unburdened by haste, has plenty of time to spell it right.
Robust. Ernest Hemingway's mother noted that at the age of 5 1/2 he could already count to 100 and "spell by ear very well." At 49, to his credit, he still spelled by ear very well. His letters, edited by Prof. Carlos Baker, reveal that he often wrote "makeing" and "loveing." Spell them as you will, they are still heroically transitive.
In a letter of 1936, regarding a visit of Wallace Stevens to Key West, Hemingway wrote that he had "met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, 'By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I'd knock him out with a single punch.'" Later Stevens had his chance (according to Hemingway) and "swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating."
Stevens spelled like a poet, and it earned him a thrashing.
There were giants in the earth in those days . . . mighty men which were of ole, men of renown. The first printing of "The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, contained approximately 100 spelling errors. Fitzgerald, a great talent, was a natural speller, not a correct one. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, was a great talent and a natural editor, and couldn't spell either. Charles Scribner was only a publisher, but unfortunately could spell quite well and was pretty angry.
Dorothy Parker was often accused of not knowing how to line up the alphabet to spell a word correctly, but by using only its first two letters she managed to compose the most memorable line in the history of American theater criticism. Of Katharine Hepburn in a review of "The Lake," Parker said: "She ran the gamut of human emotions from A to B."
The Roosevelt family, starting with Teddy, were incorrect spellers and so were and are a lot of the Kennedys. It seems to go with the style. President Eisenhower revealed in 1953, when congratulating the winner of the 25th National Spelling Bee, that he himself had been knocked out of a lesser contest years before by the word "syzygy."
On May 30, 1980, the White House staff of President Jimmy Carter put out a memo congratulating Jacques Bailly, 14, of Denver, that year's National Spelling Bee champion. They spelled his name wrong. Carter, trying to grab a little of the glory for himself, said: "I don't have any doubt that everyone here can spell better than I can."
The ploy failed, however. Carter, rightly or wrongly, was widely perceived to be an excellent speller, and in November Ronald Reagan won in a landslide.
Mickey Spillane, the robust American writer, was asked why there are never any mustachioed men in his novels, or anyone drinking cognac. "I can't spell the words," Spillane replied. "So the guy's gonna wear a beard."
William S. Burroughs, perhaps the American dean of robust writing, was asked recently for a blurb to help promote "Just Causes," a novel about terrorism by Malcolm McConnell. He replied to the publishers thusly about the work by his friend Malcom:
". . . Authentic and fast-moving, the book holds the reader from beginning to end. A must for those who want to understand terrifying contemperary enigma. Why do they do it?"
They do it because they are natural spellers, not correct spellers, and because they have hearts too great to be bounden by straitjacketing schoolmarmism and when the right word turns up they know it, by God, and even if they can't spell it it fits so well into the context that a good reader, a fair and discriminating reader, will know it in any of its forms.
Yes, in any of its forms. For the forms of words in English are many, and correctness is in the eye of the beholder. Dictionaries reflect usage only and not correctness; they reflect consensus, and consensus reflects convenience and the work of committees, which are by definition never incorrect.
And that is why Teng Hsiao-ping has been renamed Deng Xiaoping. Here was a change by committee for the purpose of convenience. The change requires a verbal corollary: "By the way, it's pronounced 'dung.'" Think about the value of this correct spelling while you are waiting for the Beijing duck to arrive.
Vigor and spontaneity mark the natural speller. In his ranks are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Edmund Spenser, the latter a remarkable example of the spirit of nonconformity insofar as to the eye of the contemporary pedant, his own name seems spelled wrong.
The wellspring of this conforming correctness was William Caxton (1422-1491), the first English printer, but it was not his fault. Printing only raised the possibility of standardized spelling. It was Dr. Johnson's "Dictionary" that forced it down our throats for all time. Since then, new dictionaries have arisen one after another, each seeking to supplant its predecessor by changing the spellings and meanings of as many words as possible, under the claim that "the language is evolving."
If it evolving, it is in spite of dictionaries, not because of them. A certain pocket dictionary, for example, will fit in your pocket precisely because it does not contain the words "tenebrous" or "mandala" or "mantra," among others. If you do find a word in one dictionary, the next will be in subtle disagreement. Then you may turn to various texts on usage, which seem to be in a continuing cat fight with each other. Finally, we have what is called "style." For years it was Associated Press style to spell "employe" that way. Fine. It is no longer. A few years ago The Washington Post decided "per cent" was one word. Fine.
If Darwin thought there were a lot of rocks in the Beagle channel, he ought to have tried navigating through this mess.
As a matter of practicality, the vast hordes -- the defaming hordes who have for years denigrated those to proud to succumb to pitiable memorization or fruitless searches through thumb-licked Websters -- as a practical matter these vast hordes well ought to go ahead and spell everything the same way. It will make life easier for them, as will the nine-digit ZIP code.
As for the natural spellers, there is no need for concern. We are invincible and ubiquitous, and we have already proved, from grade school to our current endeavors in every walk of life, that all attempts to standardize a robust language in the hands of a free people are ever doomed to fail.