Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.

Consulting the dictionaries, I found them unanimous in their judgment. Detritus, it was. One online dictionary did offer a link to a page for detrius, but visitors to the page were advised pretty quickly that the word they were seeking was detritus.

The internet being what it is, I found more entries for detrius when I used it as a search term. Even so, the results of a Google Fight were clear: detritus won out over detrius by a significant margin: 497,000 entries to 8,510. I wasn’t alone in my misspelling, but clearly I was part of a minority.

As if to reinforce the point, Dr. Goodword showed up in my inbox to advise that it’s detritus which refers to “waste from physical activity of some kind,” perhaps “loose pieces of rock…worn away by rubbing or weathering.” Less concretely, he said, it refers to “leftover debris or waste matter from anything.” As an example, Dr. Goodword suggested that “network talk shows today amount to the detritus of political thought…discarded years ago.” (Dr. Goodword is very smart, and often amusing in his observations.)

After pointing out that the noun associated with detritus is detrition, and that no verb (to detrite) exists, the good Doctor offered a final word of advice: “Just avoid confusing the ending -us on this noun with the more common adjective ending -ous, which is pronounced the same way.”

Humph, I thought. At least I got that right.

Having dismissed detrius as a bit of linguistic detritus, I began to ponder a larger issue. It wasn’t only that I’d misspelled a word. I had done so confidently and consistently, assuming I knew exactly how it should be spelled. What else is lurking in that wordy thicket? I wondered. What other errors am I making on a consistent basis, without even noticing?

It was a conundrum. Since we don’t know what we don’t know, there was nothing to do but cast a more attentive eye on my writing, be a little more cautious, and wait.

The waiting was over sooner than I would have liked. When a kind reader pointed out a typographical error in one of my posts, the slip — an extra n in the word renovation — seemed vaguely familiar. Using the internal search tool WordPress provides, I found three posts and five comments where I’d misspelled both renovation and renovate, adding that extra n in all cases.

As I became more attentive, I began to see a pattern in my errors. Worried about drought, I fussed over dessicated plants that should have been desiccated. That breeze in the trees? I heard it sussurating, when it should have susurrated. When Ebola came to Liberia, I recalled other hemmorhagic fevers, even though I should have described them as hemorrhagic.

During a recent Sunday outing, a friend asked why harvest-ready corn in the fields seemed so short. It might be hybridized, I suggested, or it might have become shorter as it became more desiccated. Then I added, “That’s desiccated. One s and a double c.”  Giving me a look that made clear she thought spelling was the least of my problems, she said, “You don’t have to spell it out for me quite that precisely.”

Laughing, I told her the story of my spelling woes, including my latest hypothesis about their source: that my mother was frightened by double consonants while I still was in the womb.  “Well,” she said, “as hypotheses go, it sure beats an ordinary mental block.”


Despite my humorous suggestion, any tendency to run amok with consonants surely wasn’t the fault of my mother. Dedicated to overseeing daily spelling drills, she taught me more than a few tricks as I prepared for our school’s monthly spelling bees.

Like many American children, I learned to spell Mississippi using the familiar mnemonic (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter…) The Caribbean became memorable because of the imaginary Carib bean she described. As for tintinnabulation — who better to help me remember that one, than the faithful Rin Tin Tin?

How I overcame other double consonant challenges — embarrass, millennium, resurrection, zucchini — I can’t say. But when I’m sitting at my desk, reaching yet again for the dictionary to double-check embarrass, assassin, or renovation, I experience a remarkable truth: even a single word can become its own spelling bee.

When it happens, I smile to remember my mother, sitting with other parents near the back of our classroom, clasping her right forefinger with her left hand: a life-long, nervous gesture whose force belied her calm demeanor.

The word I’ve been given is irrelevant, for every word is a journey, each consonant, each vowel, a bridge to meaning or an obstacle to understanding.  Should husks of misspelled words lie strewn about the floor, the inevitable detritus of a learning process, no matter. Every attempt is exciting, each new word opens yet another door, and every achievement brings joy, for mother and daughter alike. Faith Shearin understands, and expresses it well.

In the spelling bee my daughter wore a good
brown dress and kept her hands folded.
There were twelve children speaking
into a microphone that was taller than
they were. Each time it was her turn
I could barely look. It wasn’t that I wanted
her to win but I hoped she would be
happy with herself. The words were too hard
for me; I would have missed chemical,
thermos, and dessert. Each time she spelled
one correctly my heart became a bird.
She once fluttered so restlessly beneath
my skin and, on the morning of her arrival,
her little red hands held nothing.
Her life since has been a surprise: she can
sew; she can draw; she can read. She hates
raisins but loves science. All the parents
must feel this, watching from the cheap
folding chairs. Somewhere inside them
love took shape and now
it stands at the microphone, spelling.
Swati Sharma wins  the 2013 San Antonio Express-News’ Regional Spelling Bee

** This quotation, in various forms, has been attributed to Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, and others. For an exploration of its source, visit The Quote Investigator. For more on Faith Shearin, whose poem “Spelling Bee” is quoted above, please click here.
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Published in: on August 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm  Comments (97)  
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The Threshold of Imagination

Given an opportunity to read Graham Greene on the veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I found it impossible to resist. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?

Greene, who spent time in Freetown both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer during WWII, drew on his experiences at the hotel in a variety of ways. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.

A Gift of Ordinary Time

Lilacs and Memories
days seem
 meant to pass
unnoticed,  filled
with fading ferns or
phlox, laundry blown both south
and north by swirling, lifting
winds. Tabled lilacs, fragrant, sweet,
reclaim those passing hours, renew their
 grace-filled beauty in aging, time-worn hearts.
Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click HERE.
Published in: on May 30, 2014 at 2:59 pm  Comments (71)  
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Six Years on the Road

Even with a photograph in hand, I can’t tell you much about this car I helped to wash so many times. I never knew the make or model, and todayI’m not even certain of the color.

On the other hand, I remember the back seat perfectly well.  My world-on-wheels came furnished with a red plaid wool stadium blanket, a plastic solitaire game with red and blue pegs, and a doll suitcase filled with crayolas and colored tablets, paper dolls, and a pile of Golden Books.  Whether it was a jaunt over to the A&W for root beer floats, an evening at the drive-in movies, or a trip to my grandparents’ house, the back seat was mine.  It was my castle, my refuge, my tiny bit of homestead to do with as I pleased.

On longer trips, tiring of books and paper dolls, I’d stretch out on the seat and pretend to sleep, while the low murmurings of my mother and father tucked a conversational blanket around me. Sometimes I drifted into sleep, secure against my pillows, enjoying the sense of movement and the soft hum of tires on concrete.

Published in: on April 13, 2014 at 9:03 am  Comments (139)  
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Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. (more…)


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