“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.