Tyrades! By Danny Tyree
At press time, inclement weather has postponed my son’s elementary school spelling bee; but I’m still all fired up over the concept of such old-fashioned contests.
I know not everyone has shared my enthusiasm. I hear countless anecdotes of “My uncle couldn’t spell his way out of a wet paper sack, and HE turned out okay.” (“Okay” in the sense of being put in a nice, quiet institution for people who struggle for ways to extricate themselves from a wet paper sack, I suppose.)
Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken chafed under rigid rules of spelling. And President Andrew Jackson famously groused, “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” (Perhaps “Old Hickory” should have been more of a stickler. Historians recently discovered that the document supposedly authorizing the shameful Trail of Tears was actually meant to have been an invitation for Native Americans to pose with Jackson for the twenty-dollar bill. Oops.)
The mastery of spelling is a way to pay homage to the great American melting pot. Our immigrant ancestors brought to this country their own cultures and languages, each with its own rules, traditions and peculiarities. (Honest, it was only a couple of years ago that it dawned on me that Goethe and “Gerta” were the same person.) They wanted their descendants to achieve prosperity, to fall on their knees and thank their Creator for their liberties, to fall on their knees and roll dice to make the difficult choice of “f” or “ph” or “gh”…
Spelling bees are an invaluable confidence-builder and introduction to public speaking. Of course the fact that you’re dutifully parroting what those in charge want to hear opens up all sorts of opportunities. (“If you think you can be spared during third period gym class, we want to reward you with a congressional committee chairmanship…”)
A knack for spelling can give you a priceless edge in job interview situations. (“You’re hired. And you won’t be just a number — you’ll be a number who can spell ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’!”)
It’s richly rewarding not only to memorize word spellings but to study their etymology. You can spend many a happy hour delving into word origins and reveling in their Latin roots. Of course you’ll also wind up sitting on your gluteus maximus while everyone else is out on a date, but that’s the price you pay for scholarship.
I feel an urgent need to champion the art of spelling, because even the people who used to value it are now becoming lazy and depending on a spellcheck app. Dependence on spellchecks has left many a document riddled with hilarious results. I’m proud to say that people often tell me they can tell I don’t resort to a spellcheck. Hey, wait a minute…
Let’s keep spelling bees healthy in the face of technology. Encourage spelling bees in your community. Go and watch. Contribute a cash prize.
Most of all, do not allow yourself or your children to be intimidated by spelling. You can fortify yourself with a few simple tips. After all, it’s “i before e…” or is that “age before beauty”? Um, pearls before swine? Death before dishonor? Close cover before striking?
Okay, I’m about to use “intimidated” in a sentence…
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