The Case for Cacography

The Case for Cacography

Some people can run but they can't hide. I can write but I can't spell. The relative exactitude of the words in this column is attributable to a SWAT team of copy editors.

Like most terrified schoolchildren, I thought it was me and not the English language. My first written sentence was "Sea Spot run.'' My maiden literary opus was a diary I kept briefly when 11 years old. Here is an excerpt: "Roger Riley is a twit but sometimes dangerous. We have taken his weales, recked his buggy, and beat him up in gang wars etc., etc., etc. Sometimes he is our freind.''

A decade later, as editor of a rural weekly newspaper, I wrote that the garden club members had been busy "prooning'' and "wedding" in front of the church. The good ladies (women are notoriously better spellers than men) were flabbergasted.

I wouldn't constitute those mangled words the same way today, which isn't to say I would get them right. I'd be happy with 3 out of 4 and wouldn't feel any remorse over the fourth.

The English language is to spelling what original sin is to morality. Some of us are better orthographers than others, but no one is without error. Mark Twain was a crackerjack speller, among other things, but even he admitted to lapses. Nor was he impressed with his lettered talent. It was one of those impositions which he and Huck Finn lumped under that pernicious human contrivance: "sivilization.''

The reason English words are so hard to piece together is that the building blocks, our alphabet, are about as consistent as our politicians. The fearsome foursome "ough'' is a prime example. Note the different noises it makes in each location: dough, rough, through, hiccough. Even two visually identical words can be pronounced and have meanings worlds apart, as in: "row, row, row your boat'' or "he apologized after having a row with his sister.'' And it would take a cunning linguist, indeed, to enunciate "sow" without knowing whether the sentence dealt with meat or potatoes.

Over the years a few have fought back, advocating reform, generally with little success. People like Ben Franklin and Noah Webster, and even Andrew Carnegie, have urged innovations of various kinds: phoneticization (make that "fonetisizashun''), a new or better behaved alphabet, or simply piecemeal improvements.

Webster progressed the furthest (even though Carnegie annually pumped $25,000 into the effort for a spell) with such common-sense alterations as "plow'' for "plough" or "er" instead or "re" at the tail end of "theater." His refurbishing zeal, however, must have petered out at the letter "Y'' because he missed "zephyr.''

Just how tough is it out there in lexicon land? Shall we test your orthographic prowess? First, a warm-up: Earlier you may have noticed that the plural of potato is potatoes. What is the plural of photo? Goose becomes geese, so how do you spell more than one moose? Answers: photos and moose.

Warm yet? Try these multiple-choices: Which is correct?

Travelling or traveling?

Comptroller or controller?

Crackerjack or crackajack? (This is a breeze, since one appeared earlier on.)

Finally, Allegheny or Allegany?

If you went down the list picking one of every two offerings, you were correct no matter which you chose. But you were only half right. All eight variations are allowed.

Herein, ironically, lie the seeds of a solution. If some words can have two acceptable spellings, well, why not three or four? Heck, why not any number of reasonably decipherable combinations of semantic units? And if some words can have multiple constructions, why not all? We often find variations in pronunciation. Can't there be similar distinctiveness in spelling?

In the novel which bears his name, Huck Finn describes a stately house as having several "chimbleys.'' I can relate to that; I grasp his meaning. We could do worse than follow Huck's lead. I know it would make my day.

Until next time, as they say in Italy, "Chow.''