Think you’re a good speller? Could you write “On Wednesday February twelfth I’ll definitely learn the judgment of my foreign amateur status” without resorting to spellcheck, or to that little rhyme about vowels, or even (gasp) the dictionary? I don’t think I could.

Even the good people at Merriam-Webster sometimes throw in the towel when it comes to the spelling of certain words. Take “tongue” for example, about which they write: “(the word) should by logic be spelled like ‘lung’ and ‘rung.’ Instead it has unreasonable vowel representation and two useless letters at the end. Don’t blame us.”

According to a recent Harris poll, the misspelling of “Wednesday” is one of the biggest peeves of most Americans. I blame elision. (I hear you muttering “What the [email protected]#$%^& is elision?”) It’s the omission of a sound or syllable when pronouncing a word. In other words, if we pronounce words like, say, “Wensday” and “Febuary,” why do we spell them differently?

The people over at Oxford Dictionary even compiled a helpful list of the 10 most misspelled words, which are: accommodate, which, receive, until, occurred, separate, government, definitely, pharaoh and publicly.

One good way to recall the correct spelling of a tricky word is to employ a mnemonic device such as: “Not Every Cat Eats Sardines, Some Are Really Yummy” the next time you have to spell “necessary.” (It seems appropriate that our word for a memory aid — mnemonic — is very hard to remember how to spell AND involves elision!)

Just the other day, I was explaining the idiosyncrasies of our language to my German friend, Claus. I advised him that there were many exceptions to the rules, even the classic “i before e except after c” mnemonic rhyme.

“So then,” he replied, “perhaps the rule should be ‘i before e except after c unless you leisurely deceive eight overweight heirs to forfeit their sovereign conceits.'”

Sometimes Claus has flashes of brilliance.

And, for once, I was at a loss for words.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: