The Thin Red Line
August 1, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
For many years, I had trouble spelling the word Wednesday. I remember writing out the days of the week in third grade and wrestling with the e’s: Wedenesday. Wedneseday. Wendsday. After all, were these spellings any less arbitrary than the correct one?
Even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as bad spellers have certain bugbears. Without the damning reminders of spell-check, I would still screw up interlocutor (I misspelled it, twice, while typing this), resistance, and accommodate. I probably shouldn’t beat myself up over the last; it’s number one on OxfordDictionary.com’s list of common misspellings. (Of course, which is on it, too.)
My mother strongly recalls an elementary-school spelling test in the late fifties. Committee was one of the words the class was told to spell. “I see three sets of twins on this committee,” hinted the teacher broadly. But my mom remembers the panic the hint induced; what did it mean? She managed to misspell it—but to this day, she remembers the incident and has never made the mistake again.
Sometimes it takes trauma for a lesson to sink in. Sometimes—see necessary, one of the few things I retained from middle-school Latin—we need to self-correct, remembering that this is a word that gives us regular trouble, and diligently apply a hard-won mnemonic. What interests me, though, are those words that we always get wrong, no matter how many times we see that red spell-check line, and look up the proper spelling, and castigate ourselves for the error.
It’s like a mental block. Or, maybe, an increasing reliance on technology; after all, a part of our brains knows we don’t really need to retain the knowledge. Maybe it’s a subconscious resistance (I just misspelled that, by the way—think of it with a French accent!) to the arbitrary strictures of language, and of Western society generally. (In this scenario, we are all storming a tiny, mental ivory tower—it is sort of like the Académie française, but full of really uptight elves.) Perhaps it’s a necessary means of preserving space in our memory cortex, or whatever. Or maybe we just like the reminder that, like children, we are always still learning. Or not learning, as the case may be. Wedenesday. Wedneseday. Wendsday. Wednesday.