Gossip or God’s Lip? Sum Thoughtes on the Vagaries of Englysshe Spellings

by Cora Brooks

I am not a good speller. I am a writer who loves to play with words. I have made my living by teaching writing in schools and universities. I have also tutored students.

Forty years ago, I bought myself a 12-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The dictionary gives old versions of a word’s spelling, as well as the current spelling and definitions. I learned from the OED how varied and unusual old spellings of words could be: word, wurd, woard, weurd.

In the 1980s, I read, transcribed and edited letters from the early 1800s. I learned from the letters how common inventive spelling used to be. In one letter, a traveling woman schoolteacher wrote from Batavia, New York, to her sister back home in Pomfret, Vermont, playfully using three different spellings of her sister’s name: Cynthia, Synthia, Sinthia. In the same batch of letters, I found daughter spelled darter, father spelled farther and summer spelled simmer. In editing the letters for publication, I did not correct or change the spelling.

I learned that it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary (1828) began to have widespread use and appears to have standardized spelling. Apparently, it was then the first spelling bees took place. Many folks began to value a certain conformity in spelling words.

I learned from children, and recently my grandchildren, and from students how wild and original word spellings can be. With my students, I began to think that their misspellings and mine were not misspellings; instead, they were words spelled in an original or old-fashioned way. Over 30 years ago, my son came home from school one day with a spelling test in which he had spelled democracy as demon crazy or dem mock crazy. My granddaughter wrote a paper in first grade that spelled news as noos and shoes as shoos; bird was spelled berd.

In the 1970s, I visited public schools to make poems with children. I never taught spelling, other than to encourage original or creative spelling. For one exercise, I took balloons into the poem-making room and asked students to blow them up but not to tie their stems. The assignment was to let the balloons fly about the room, listen to the sounds they made as the air gurgled, flitted and spurted out of them, and then to make up the spelling of the sounds—like flurbber or plubbles.

On another day, we made up words from scratch, letter by letter, like hipkin and lefferal. Then we made up definitions: Hipkin meant the children of hippies. Lefferal were leftovers, enough for all. We had fun writing our new words.

Words may be evolving along with us. Certainly, texting has lifted words off their pedestal, with spelling shortcuts like rly for really, wud for would, u for you and K for the already shortened OK.

Poet W. S. Merwin wrote, in a poem called “The Unwritten,” about words being inside the pencil, hiding, waiting; words that have never been written:

it could be that there’s only one word

and it’s all we need

and it’s here in this pencil

every pencil in the world

is like this

Cora Brooks’s collected paper, letters, poems, essays, plays and diaries are in the archives of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is 72 and still brand noo. With special thanks to Kate Mueller for research assistance and editing.

Come to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library Cabin Fever Spelling Bee

Recently, I was asked if I would be a contestant at the upcoming Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s spelling bee. I said I’d like to write, instead, a little piece on spelling.

I remember encountering a 10-year-old boy who asked me how to spell come. I asked how he thought it was spelled. He told me he once saw it written on a cake his mom made for his older brother when he came home from war. It said, “Welkim Home.” I told him I had a big dictionary at home and would bring it to class the next day.

We looked up come in the Oxford English Dictionary and found more than 30 spelling, none of them kim. So, I said, kim could be a new spelling of come, but the standard spelling was c-o-m-e.

So, kim or come or kom, quam, chom to the spelling bee at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

2nd Annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee

Kellogg-Hubbard Library, 135 Main Street, Montpelier

February 15 at 7 p.m.

Sign up to participate in the spelling bee at the library or by e-mailing your name, phone number and e-mail address to vista@kellogghubbardorg. Twenty participants will be chosen at random on February 12 to compete against local authors at the bee.


—Cora Brooks

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