I don’t know why I can spell. Was it rote learning? Was it an interest in words? Was it reading The Reader’s Digest? I once scored 100/100 in a national spelling test, one we were coerced into taking at school. The crucial word I got right was ‘waggon’, which was the ‘correct’ i.e. English version, of ‘wagon’. (And this at the time Wagon Train was being transmitted.) A colleague at work once brought in a fiendish American test, which for some reason had 46 words to try out. It was a good test, because it started with cat, run, arm and train, and softened everyone up. By number 20, you were into stinkers like privilege. Nobody in the staff-room scored 46, except of course the man who brought it in, and who was a stickler. The one that tripped me up was iridescence – I doubled the ‘r’. As it transpired, the word, which, as you might expect, features heavily in D.H.Lawrence’s The Rainbow, then a set book, was mis-spelt in the edition we were using. Still, I did get my own back on the spellmeister, by betting a carafe of wine on the spelling of impostor. He had it -er, which was valid, but mine was just as valid. This is the sad kind of life I have led for a long time.
Nevertheless, there are still words which cause me to pratfall. One of them, when I started teaching, was harass. I doubled the r – it was the way I pronounced it. To my shame, I corrected my students’ work with the ruthlessly wrong spelling. (In those days, it was the thing to use red ink. I don’t use it any more; I use blue or green. Red looks like shouting.) Quite recently, in fact when my poetry collection Impossible Objects was published, I was caught out by linseed. I had been spelling it liniseed for a very long time (probably because I have never owned either a horse or a cricket bat).
Spelling brings out my inner fascist. I object to words which end in -ize, and I am loth (or loath) to spell focused as focussed (it looks as if it should rhyme with concussed). One which causes me great problems is smooths/ smoothes. I go for the first, but I haver. (If you Google the first, it gets fewer hits, but smooth is a bit more logical. Eliot uses it in ‘Rhapsody On A Windy Night’ – ‘…smooths the hair of the grass’. But then he’s a Yankee. Not that this should be held against him – Murder In The Cathedral should be, but that’s a different issue.) It was smothe in Middle English – see Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner’s hair, but it was smoth in Old English.
There was once a progressive primary school in Exeter which used the (phonetic) ITA – Initial Teaching Alphabet. All the kids were given great freedom with vocabulary, because they weren’t afraid of writing the wrong word. They knew hundreds and hundreds of words. At a given stage, the system coaxed them into the ‘correct’, that is, accepted spelling. It worked like a dream: until the ITA specialists moved on. To get ITA to work, every member of staff has to be 100% committed.
I don’t like this side of myself. I shouldn’t shrink and flinch to see ‘preferance’, but I do. It’s just that I’ve grown up with words everywhere, and they obsess me.
Talking of which, there is an advert at the minute which tells us to remember that GARDEN is an anagram of DANGER. Very clever. But, as Jane Siberry points out in a song, did you realise that BRITNEY SPEARS is an anagram of PRESBYTERIANS?