In History, What is, Words

Toad

Last year, OxfordDictionaries.com published a list of the 10 most misspelled words found during the compilation of its New Words Corpus. It contained the usual suspects: accommodate, separate, definitely… though no broccoli, surprisingly, especially as Pharaoh was in at No.2. Apparently Pharaoh is spelt incorrectly more frequently than it is spelt correctly. By who, I wonder.

Anyway, at No.9 in the list was ‘wich’. Spell. Wich. There has to be a joke in there somewhere. OxfordDictionaries.com assumed that this was a misspelling of ‘which’, but I wouldn’t be so sure. There’s dark magic going on here.

If you were paying attention last word, (yes, I measure time in words now, not weeks or months. You should try it. It’ll help you relax. No-one lies awake at night fretting that they don’t have enough adverbs.) you’ll have noticed that an erroneous ‘you’re’ appeared in the last sentence, which should have been a ‘your’. As someone who can’t let go of apostrophes and commas when texting, I had no choice but to self-flagellate with birch twigs and endless repeats of Good Morning Britain.

Spelling is important for three reasons: 1. It helps to differentiate between completely different things, thus avoiding embarrassing mistakes like ‘feeling a little horse’ or ‘protecting your sauces’. 2. It maintains a connection between a word and its origin, thus helping to understand and preserve its meaning. 3. It satisfies the natural human desire to get hung up on minutiae.

But then you get a word like spell, which turns point one on its head: one word that has three disparate meanings, all spelt the same way. And by the way, you can say ‘spelt’ or ‘spelled’ – unless you’re talking about a type of wheat, in which case it has to be spelt.

I was determined to come up with a joke involving witches and spelling so I Googled ‘spell jokes’. Naive. I found myself drawn into some sort of cyber-algorithmic Two Ronnies sketch.
“Spell jokes.”
“J-O-K-E-S.”
“No. Spell jokes. Jokes about spells.”

And that’s about as funny as it got. There is a historical link between a witch’s spell and the ability to spell, though. They both come from an old germanic verb, ‘spellon’, which meant to tell or recite. After a spell in the verbal cauldron with half a pound of frog’s toes, an eye of newt and probably an ounce or two of fenny snake fillet if the butcher had some in, spellon split into the verb meaning of reciting letters and the noun meaning of a recited utterance – an incantation.

The third meaning, a period of time, comes from the Old English ‘spelian’, which meant to substitute or represent. In the 1600s this came to mean work in place of someone else and thus took on the sense of a shift of work. That shift of work developed into any smallish amount of thyme.

And that’s why spelling is important.

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