About Writing

On Writing: My Private Dictionary

By Mike Feinsilber

“I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells Kow with a large K. Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope…”  —Mark Twain in a speech at a spelling match, Hartford, Connecticut, May 12, 1875.

I am reminded of the little girl who said she knew perfectly well how to spell “banana,” she just didn’t know when to stop.  I know when to stop, but there are some words with spellings I just don’t remember no matter how often they’ve stumped me. These are useful words, but it is a nuisance to have to keep looking them up.  So, over the years, I’ve compiled a list and kept it inside the cover of my dictionary, and copied it into every new dictionary. I thought I’d share it here, even though it is less necessary than before; spellcheck, one of mankind’s 10 best inventions, screams in red when I misspell, then offers alternatives.
On the assumption that you might stumble over the same words I do, I present my list:

acronym
ad hominem (Who would have thought it was spelled that way?)
aficionado
alphabet (I always try to give it an “h” at the end.)
apparatchik
apocryphal
cataclysmic
Chautauqua
cholesterol
cognoscente
colloquy
colloquiums
corollary
dilemma (For years, I’ve tried to give dilemma two ”l’s” and one “m.”)
eminence grise (My spellcheck won’t accept grise.)
envelopes
epitaph
evanescence
hagiographic
hemorrhage
imprimatur
non sequitur
panache
paraphernalia
prairie (A word I’ve always loved but hesitated to use because of its challenging scattering of vowels.)
rendezvous
repertoire (This list is making a case for the study of French in high school.)
shibboleth

There you have it. I am puzzled about why so many of these words begin with letters that occur early in the alphabet.

 Mike Feinsilber notes that Einstein, Churchill, John F. Kennedy and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all bad spellers.

Comments

  1. Kevin Keogh says:

    Those of us who have had American spellings beaten out of us might spell it “haemorrhage”.

    But, after a lifetime as a linguistic pseudo purist and 40-year newspaper editor (notwithstanding starting a sentence with “but”), I regret that these days I have succumbed to the argument that language is merely a tool for conveying ideas.

    This view suggests that correct spelling should never detract from a message worth delivering even if it indulges our sense of verbal superiority to knife the guy with the forked stick for not minding his Ps and Qs.
    .

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