I AM SITTING in front of a word processor, spell-checking this article. I insert a spelling program disk in the drive, press a couple of keys, and, in minutes, the machine has corrected my work more thoroughly than Mrs. Headley, my eighth-grade English teacher, ever did with her red pen. When it cannot find a particular word in its 100,000-word dictionary, the program stops and asks me to check it. I push a button and the computer suggests 65 alternate words and spellings and a couple of similar-sounding words. It prompts me to select the one I might have meant instead.
To tell the truth, I find it very difficult to use the spell-checker program at all. I know how to spell -- always have and always will -- and it is hard for me to make enough mistakes to make the program cost- and time- effective. I am the sort of obnoxious person who cringes and groans aloud when I see a misspelled word. I once forced a waiter to watch while I circled spelling mistakes in an especially error-filled menu.
I have no more idea how my brain spells than I know how my IBM PC works. But I do know that the pride and sheer joy that are produced by making brain cells deliver correct information are not yet available on diskettes -- which may be why 168 kids with damp palms and changing voices and high hopes will crowd into the Capital Hilton on Wednesday and Thursday to compete in the 58th National Spelling Bee.
I know exactly how they feel because 22 years ago I was one of them, a 13-year-old eighth grader from the suburbs of Buffalo making her Washington debut as the western New York Spelling Champion. The word that got me to Washington was "paprika." The word that knocked me off the stage of the pre-renovated Mayflower Hotel was "dilatory." They told me it meant "delay" and I spelled it accordingly with an "e."
Every speller has an alibi. I have never spelled "dilatory" wrong since. And when the Buffalo newspaper that had sponsored me in Washington two decades ago wondered recently what I was up to and whether I remembered the word I missed, I did not disappoint them. "Dear Editor," I wrote. "I apologize for being dilatory in responding to your inquiry."
In 1963, computers were impersonal monsters that required climate control and were available only to giant corporations. Today, Texas Instruments makes a $45 dictionary-shaped computer called Speak & Spell ("Makes Spelling What it Should Be -- Fun") which uses a mellow, middle-American male voice, produced by a silicon chip, to do for today's kids what Mother and a dictionary at the kitchen table did for my generation.
Many of this year's Spelling Bee contestants list "programming the home computer" as a favorite spare-time activity. And some of them first caught the spelling bug from Speak & Spell. It's been a Texas Instruments best-seller since 1978.
The 69 spellers of the Class of '63 also had special practice methods and spelling techniques -- none of them the least bit scientific.
There was the diminutive lad, from Texas, I believe, who would repeat his word about 10 times before starting to spell it, cocking his head like a puzzled owl. There were any number of competitors who muttered prayers to assorted deities before plunging in. And there I was, clutching one of those adorably ugly plastic trolls that were the Smurfs of 1963, and wearing my lucky blue shirtdress. To this day, I know I only came in 25th because, on Day Two of the Bee, I succumbed to what was then known as "female vanity" and wore a different outfit.
In our Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Spelling Bee is a quaint relic of rural America. Those of us who know how to spell are seen as strange and wonderful -- the moral equivalent of people who can play "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on a xylophone with their toes. Not quite normal. Nerds, even. Spelling is epitomized, for most Americans, by the pigtailed brat in the television commercial, who correctly spells "Wausau" with such smug self-satisfaction that she has to be dragged off the stage.
But the Spelling Bee is also a way of officially recognizing our centuries-old battle to standardize and make sense of English. Only human minds could create a language so maddening, with more exceptions than rules, more caprices than patterns; a lingual melting pot more diverse than Arlington, Va. Any computer could create a language far more sensible and logical.
And only Americans could make a high- powered contest out of it, a sort of mental Olympics for the junior high set, complete with tears and trauma, cash prizes and publicity.
The 1985 National Spelling Champion gets to appear on one of the morning news shows where he or she will be patronized, in the way adults have with child prodigies, by being asked to spell some truly dumb word like "antidisestablishmentarianism." As any real speller knows, that word, though long, is incredibly easy because, uncharacteristically for the English language, it's phonetic.
Even the people who run the Bee aren't sure why some people can spell just about any word in the English language while others are unable to find "word" in the dictionary. ("'Wird?' 'Werd?' Damn it, it's not in here.")
Native English-speaking is not the crucial factor. A number of this year's contestants were born in the Far East and one, sponsored by a paper in Mexico City, is a native Spanish-speaker. My own parents were native speakers of German and Polish who not only taught me how to spell English but caught my every mistake.
Reading a lot helps. But newspaper reporters who read and write for a living are notoriously bad spellers -- which may be one reason why most word-processing programs come with spelling checkers. And why the regional bees that culminate in next week's spelling Olympics are sponsored by newspapers.
Nor is age important. Spelling skills seem to develop early or not at all. It is true, however, that an older contestant is more likely to possess the poise he or she needs to spell out loud in front of hundreds of people and cameras. This year's youngest speller is a 9-year-old fourth-grader from Knoxville, hometown of the 1963 Spelling Champion. Fifty-five 14-year-olds are the senior contestants in the Bee, whose cutoff age is 15 or the completion of eighth grade, whichever comes first.
Sex seems at first to be significant. There are 101 girls in this year's competition and just 67 boys. But over the years, boys and girls have won the Bee in almost equal numbers -- 27 boys and 33 girls among the 60 champions. (After marathon Bees in 1950, 1957 and 1962, co-winners were declared.)
Mary Mangold, co-director of the Bee for Scripps-Howard, the Cincinnati-based publishing company that has sponsored the contest since 1941, thinks the ability to spell is the ability to see, and remember what you have seen.
"You have to be someone who pays attention to print -- not just what it says but the way the words look," she says. "When I had a spelling test as a kid, if a word didn't look right, I would take a piece of scrap paper and play around with it. I still do that. You need visual aptitude."
Mangold never spelled her way to the National Spelling Bee, however. "In our eighth- grade school bee, I misspelled 'whippoorwill,'" she recalled. Real spellers never, ever, forget the word they get wrong. And they never spell it wrong again.
Officially, the National Spelling Bee disapproves of rote memorization -- the astonishing but ultimately parrot- like ability of some kids to spell words they have seen and recited but do not understand. Teachers and parents are encouraged to help the children discover the meanings and derivations of the words they spell, and truly add them to their vocabularies.
My favorite practice word in 1963 was "syzygy." I still know how to spell it and, if I have forgotten what it means, why don't you try using it in conversation some time. That may be why my computer spell-checker never heard of this word. But it did know how to spell "whippoorwill" and "dilatory."
In practice, though, top-caliber spellers are competitors just as fierce as any Westinghouse Science whiz or nationally ranked cheerleader. So when Bee officials send out their best-selling booklet, "Words of the Champions" (more than 600,000 issued in 1984 alone), only a crazily confident local spelling champion -- or parent of local spelling champion -- could resist the temptation to drill . . . and drill . . . and drill.
The official "list" still dominates the lives of championship spellers as they work their way up from their local school bees to regional contests and the National Bee.
In the early rounds of the District of Columbia spelling final last April, the contestants spelled simple words with great caution and hesitancy, often asking, as the rules allow, for definitions, derivations and repetitions.
Suddenly, it was "Words of the Champions" time. The pace picked up considerably. Suddenly, no word was sufficiently difficult to require a meaning nor obscure enough to demand a root. Words never uttered by Speak & Spell came tripping off the tongues of the 12 terrifically well-drilled spellers who took part.
The winner, Daphne Gaither, who will represent D.C. next week, is a confident and polished 13-year-old who fits the model of a modern speller. An honor-roll student in the eighth grade at Evans Junior High School in Northeast Washington, she began reading in kindergarten and reads cereal boxes when there is nothing else in front of her. "I look at words," she explains. "Sometimes when I hear a word, I sort of write it with my hands in the air" before spelling it out loud.
Each morning, while Daphne walks the two blocks to her school, her friend Charlene McCray reads practice words to her from a battered and dogeared copy of "Words of the Champions," marking hesitations and errors in red.
At home, Daphne has access to two other spelling resources -- her mother, Kathryne Gaither, and the computer her teachers got her last year, after Daphne came in second in the citywide bee.
"When I don't know a word while I am reading, my mother tells me, 'You look it up,'" said Daphne. The computer, she said, is "for pleasure." For serious -- and she is very serious about her spelling -- Daphne turns to the dictionary.
"I thought about putting 'Words of the Champions' on the computer," said Evans Junior High English teacher Verian Guillory, Daphne's spelling mentor. "But that would be very tedious" -- not to mention how very difficult it would make it for Daphne and Charlene to practice spelling while walking to school in the morning.
Computers are doing two seemingly contrary things these days. They are making it less necessary for most people to know how to spell. And they are making it easier for some people to become really good spellers.
The careless, the inept, the spelling disabled will be able to survive in a world of words by relying on computers to conceal their own weaknesses and maintain the continuity and consistency of the English language.
Those of us whose brains were programmed for spelling success from the day we first uttered "mama, dada" will use computer technology to learn new words, no longer dependent on the patience of a parent, teacher or friend to develop spelling proficiency.
"I used to wonder if what calculators have done to arithmetic, word-processor spelling programs would do to spelling," said Bee co- director Mangold. "But the brain is still the most efficient and fastest computer -- and the computer is only as good a speller as the person programming it. So I guess you just can't escape spelling."
In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a story about a future society so computerized that when an adviser to the king was able to do arithmetic in his head he was proclaimed a genius. Asimov's only mistake may have been to set the story in a distant century, instead of his own.
That fate seems unlikely to befall spelling. It's great fun watching the computer check my spelling. But if I didn't already know how to spell, all this electronic magic would be about as useful to me as a traditional dictionary is to the traditional hopeless speller. How could I possibly choose from the dozens of options and homonyms? Where would I get the confidence to assert my own judgment against that of a large but limited dictionary-on-a-disk? What guarantee do I have that the programmers knew how to spell?
So I'll be cheering on the contestants in the National Spelling Bee, not just out of nostalgia, but because I am counting on this new generation of spellers, counting on them to prove the primacy of human intelligence -- and program those damn computers right. There is only so much cringing and groaning one spelling snob can do in a lifetime.