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It's only spelling

They are in some danger over at Read Street of getting their shorts in a bunch over spelling, provoked by the scores of subliterate comments on their posts about Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer. * “How much slippage can we tolerate” in spelling? “Will all writing someday slip soundlessly into a weird sort of Internet dialect: i mist u 4eva!!!!!!!! Or will we be subjected to a mash of misspellings: King is jelous becuz Meyer took his audiance; he shudnt b critizicing. Or — shudder — both.” **

Coincidentally, Language Log has recently addressed spelling in a post about a faux-Russian version of lolcats, the Web site with photos of cats to which have been appended jocular captions with substandard spellings, “I can haz cheezburger?” being perhaps the most famous. (The comments are worth a look, particularly the ones in which people with no apparent sense of humor comment on humor.)

The former Viewing With Alarm and the latter analysis of humor both depend on a standard orthography, which is really a comparatively recent development in writing. Think of Shakespeare, with those half-dozen authenticated signatures displaying variant spellings of his own name. Think of the luxuriant varieties of spelling in the 18th century. Standardized spelling is essentially a product of the 19th century, and it developed in the United States primarily out of two phenomena: establishment of widespread public education and the remarkable popularity of Noah Webster’s spelling books and dictionary.

This led in turn to the kind of humor most popular in 19th-century America, the semi-literate personae of Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby — satire in which rubes comment ignorantly on current events with funny spellings and broken-down grammar. But it’s only when the audience knows better that this kind of humor can seem funny. ***

So the jokes in lolcats only work if the readers can identify and laugh at the silly spellings.

And as for the kids, with their damnable texting and Twittering, I am confident that when they have to get jobs, they will quickly learn how to write as badly as anyone in business or government.


* I mean, what did they expect? Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer? Salon conversation? Dry donnish wit over port in the common room? Look at the people who read that stuff. They’re like fans who write to the alternative press complaining about the pop music reviews. Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer — you might as well try to referee an argument between adherents of New Kids on the Block and the Jonas Brothers. What’s most distressing about Internet commentary is not the defective grammar or uncertain spelling, but the lack of reasonable argument and civility.

** Those damn kids with their loud music and their crazy clothes and their sloppy spelling, etc., etc.

*** My parents, who lived their entire lives in Fleming County Kentucky, on the edge of Appalachian, and who both spoke with identifiable regional accent, loved watching Hee-Haw. They got to laugh at the hicks.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 AM | | Comments (12)


Do acronyms (such as ASAP, SWAK, FUBAR, and TANSTAAFL - all more than old enough to be elected POTUS) count? They seem to be a fore runner of texting shortcuts.

Only spelling. ONLY spelling? ONLY SPELLING?! Aaron Spelling!!??!!
Now you've got me upset. Pass the double malt, please.
We seem to be headed to a new English -- a simpler, stripped down version. It's not surprising, considering that the language has been evolving for centuries. But I wonder whether subtleties of the language will be wrung out by the need for speed.

Shorts in a bunch?

Long ago, when my own kids were in grade school, a friend and I were in her kitchen when her HS Jr son walked, grabbed the ice water jug and began drinking (very) sloppily straight from it. One or the other of us said, "Water, water, everywhere..." to which His Suaveness responded, "Hunh?"

His mother, of course, "reminded" (discretionary quotes) him that we were quoting The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and begged him to tell her that he was just kidding with the blank look, else why was she wasting time sending him to school, why didn't he go straight to work in the salt mines?

He shrugged and said that TRotAM was no longer being read in Baltimore County Public Schools. "Oh, no", we moaned, "When someone refers to an albatross, how will you know what they mean?"

He gave us the nonchalant look that only a 16 year-old boy can do justice and said, "After awhile, people will stop saying that and it won't matter any more."

Has anyone here referred to an albatross in the last decade? What else are we willing to give up? How low can we bear for the lowest common denominator to be?

Shorts in a bunch?

You'd prefer, maybe, knickers in a twist?

Um, while we're on the subject of spelling, shouldn't that be 'Rime' of the Ancient Mariner? Always smacked of phoney Ye Olde English to me.

Your parents would thrive on all programming on Bravo! and Oxygen, not to mention "Sex and the City." Talk about your hicks, and so badly, if at all, dressed.

I Can Has Simplfd Speling?

(And more, by e-mail, 4u)

Discussions in this vein often lead me to bring up the quote attributed to Andrew Jackson the first time I came across it in Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers that he had no respect for any man who could spell a word only one way. I have since heard it attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but suspect that people who don't really know who said something clever pick Lincoln because he probably would have if he had thought of it.

My cryptic remark on Simplified Spelling was inpired by reading Theodore Rex (by Morris) just recently. It was a bona fide spellin' reform proposal that Teddy Roosevelt thot was "bully, just bully." And used in his letters threafter though not to the extent of the full proposal.

I have since heard it attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but suspect that people who don't really know who said something clever pick Lincoln because he probably would have if he had thought of it.

I think abe lincoln once said something about aninsurance agency system. right?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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