As another school year full of helping students get a handle on some of their subject matter meanders to its drawn-out conclusion, I thought that now might be a good time to look back on some of my own experiences as a student in the public schools of western Maine and beyond. Specifically I thought I’d try to figure out how and why I became the word wonk that I am today.

In other words, please bear with me as I attempt to self-analyze myself. (Yes, I realize that’s redundant – but it sounds good.)

I remember being in Mrs. Perkins’ seventh- and eight-grade English classes eagerly watching her diagram sentences. And I remember being eliminated from her classroom spelling bee because I didn’t know there was an H in “chlorine,” and then almost getting back in because I could spell “gnarled” when none of the remaining contestants could.

Even before I arrived in Mrs. Perkins’ classroom, I had already started mentally collecting words I thought were interesting. One day when the Maine State Library’s bookmobile came to our school I decided I needed to check out a book about mountains.

When the vehicle’s librarian said the book I wanted was way above my level, I offered to read a few lines to him. Fortunately the page he selected for me to read was about Mount Kilimanjaro, which I’d heard about on TV, so after I flawlessly read the passage to him, he let me take out the book.

Then there was the time I pointed out to my high school world history teacher, Mr. Adams, that the “their” he changed to “there” in my historiography (a word I used to think he’d made up) was correct in the first place and that he was wrong. I later got to wondering why my grade on the project wasn’t as good as I thought it should be.


In the Army I learned a lot of words — many of which aren’t suitable for publication in this (or any other) newspaper. However, one word that I can repeat is “bivouac,” which I learned to spell early in basic training. Later on, in my electronics training, I was actually happy to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet – you know, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” and so on.

Immediately following my discharge from the service, I used my GI Bill to attend the University of Maine, where I took writing classes from Professor Harvey Kail, who taught me about such things as onomatopoeia (the formation of a word based on its sound, such as “bang,” “beep,” “buzz” and “burp”), as well as myriad other literary terms. And I’m proud to say I can still spell “onomatopoeia” without using spellcheck.

Richard Brucher, another UMO professor, introduced me to such characters as Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s no-good uncle in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”). He also gave me what has turned out to be the best piece of advice about writing that I ever received, which was to ask myself “Am I saying what I want to say?”

These days, Mrs. Word Guy and I collaborate on solving the Wordle, Quordle and Octordle puzzles over breakfast until she’s had enough wordplay for the day and goes off to do things that actually matter. I, on the other hand, continue on and try to solve The New York Times’ Mini Crossword as quickly as I can – because a word guy’s word work is never done.

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.” He can be reached at

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