Ode to Spell Cheak

by Paul Guajardo

 

“I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling
words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes
alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing.”
—Mark Twain

While I love the English language, I have found that creative orthography is the only way I can express myself. Don’t get me wrong, variety is pleasing, but I rarely do it on purpose. In my defense, there are some uncommon words that are notoriously difficult to
spell—cymotrichous (relating to having wavy hair) and smaragdine (relating to emeralds or their color) would fall into this category. Even Microsoft Word flags those words as incorrect, and any Spelling Bee contestant would start to sweat if a judge picked them. But then there are common words that always make me think twice, even if they are not overly complex. These include minuscule, bologna, and fuchsia. The only explanation I can give for those spellings is the arbitrary nature of language itself and English’s habit of stealing things from other nations (ricochet, I’m looking at you). Unfortunately, those are understandable stumbling blocks, but I have also been known to commit the most basic of errors with words like definitely, guard, and separate. I take solace in the BYU-approved version of Andrew Jackson’s quote: “It’s a [dang] poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”

I also like to think I have an excuse. You see, according to spell check programs my own name is spelled wrong. At least, that is what the red squiggle indicates, and if you are a poor speler (like me), you learn to fear those little red lines whenever they appear and trust in spellcheck like a blind nun trusts God. In fact, if I type an uncommonly long line of correctly spelled words, I will write gibberish to make sure whatever program I am using has spell check enabled. While this essay will most likely be read by English majors who are much more meticulous than I, I’m sure that some of you (even you grammar Nazis on occasion) can relate to the sinking feeling you get right after you forgot to check your spelling before hitting send, and thus, your boss sees sincearly instead of sincerely, or something equally mortifying.

In the COVID-19 era, with work and school moving online, emails are even more dangerous for the orthographically challenged than text messages. People expect texts to be sent in a hurry and riddled with errors—with good reason: at least you can blame autocorrect when you have a typo in a text. (But let’s be honest, that is one of the rare cases where it’s socially acceptable to lie. In fact, it falls into place right along with “I’m so happy to see you too,” “Sorry, I’m really busy,” and “I love your new haircut.”) Emails seemingly need to be professional, well-written, proof-read, visually appealing, and motivational if you are sending them to work superiors. If you are a professor sending them to students, they can be one sentence long and sent at one fifty-seven a.m. In fact, that’s a power move right there because students don’t have the letters “Dr.” in front of their names.

After many facepalms and frantic searches for the undo button, I have recognized that I need to be especially careful. Typically, when I am done with my emails, they look as if a Freshman Composition professor imbibed to make it through a stack of ungraded papers and then proceeded to practice his mediocre drawing skills on my paper until either he or his red pen gave out. Thankfully, someone invented spell-check, and within a few minuets, I can get an email back to its healthy monochromatic look once more, but there are a few dangers in blindly trusting word processing programs. One word of advice to my fellow Scrabble players (who never win) is that we sometimes write a correctly spelled word that is not the one we want. Quiet and quite often slip pass us unawares unless we pay close attention, and don’t get me started on homonyms!

Homonyms are the bane of week writers, and while I love puns, I think it is a sin that coins, smells, and shipping terms are all pronounced the same way. (I mean, since when has common sense allowed people to create the words cent, scent, and sent?) Similarly, I always wonder why we can beat beets until we are beat, and cite sighted sites in papers, but we cannot beet beats or site cites. We can desert deserts, but we cannot dessert desserts without getting funny stairs. Now imagine trying to understand this when English is your second language! It’s a fact that new and knew and know and no are really just written shibboleths meant to irritate anyone who was not raised on phrases such as “I before E except after C—or when sounded like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’” Honestly, the science is simple; there aren’t weird exceptions; the height of our language allows no misconceptions.

In all seriousness, English is not easy, and sometimes I wonder how I became so involved with it. I am like a vegan who works on a dairy farm or a claustrophobic ant. When I was born, the Fates must have known I was going to be a poor speller and gave me my last name as preparation. In fact, my life has been a series of ironies since then: I’m the kid who couldn’t read until I was well into elementary school but who majors in English. I am the worst speller I know, but I want to be an author. I adore typefaces and calligraphy, but my handwriting looks slightly less appealing than the scrawl of a doctor at sea…during a storm…with a blindfold. I don’t seem to fit the mold of what people think when they ask me what I am studying. But the Fates weren’t entirely without mercy.

I was born in the right place: south Houston, where names like Nequile, Shamika, and Josemaria didn’t raise an eyebrow but White, Smith, and Jones did. Growing up, there was a comradery among those of us whom Microsoft Word flagged as “other.” While we came from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, we still went to school and dreamed of opening our own business, the Bar exam, or bowling 300. Our names might have been anomalies, but we weren’t. At the same time, I must say that I met other people who did not ascribe to any of the typical pursuits of society and who, to paraphrase Thoreau, danced to the rhythm of their own beatbox. They were the variety that Twain praised, and I am sure they would have been even more creative in their orthography than I.

While riding the Metro bus to campus, I had time to converse with strangers from all walks of life. I suppose my parents never taught me to keep to myself, but I met some fascinating individuals: from those who claimed to be living prophets and modern-day Moses, to people who said they just got out of prison for the third time. On the Metro in south Houston, you’ll see people dressed in their Sunday best, and people in shirts so stained you almost wonder if it’s patterned. Yet . . . we all rode the same bus. For those thirty minutes, we were all equal, and nobody cared about last names or suffixes. They didn’t care how you spelled mnemonic, or if you always had to repeat your last name to store clerks. They did care about who you were underneath all that though. They cared about where you were going, and what was important to you. In a world that is built upon appearances and judges others for small keystroke mishaps, I find it quite refreshing to focus on the content of others instead of on their covers.

But what do I know? I’m just the guy who can’t even spell his own name.