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Crossing the red line

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By Alexandra Petri
Monday, June 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

If my spell check is to be believed, the Scripps National Spelling Bee that concluded Thursday night consisted of a group of very talented, dedicated kids spelling completely made-up nonsense words for several hours.

The winner? Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y. The winning word? Knaidel. It's a noun. It means “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming.”

But type it, and a red line appears underneath it. That was a theme of the evening. Nearly every time one of the indefatigable 11 finalists would spell a word, Microsoft Word would insist that the word did not exist.

Of the 57 words in the finals, spell check was adamant that 48 were not actual words.

Nope, it would say when I typed in the name of a small boat for catching tuna (thonnier) or a Hebrew word for a place of destruction (Abaddon) or a word meaning hazel-colored (avellaneous). There were whole hosts of remarkable words that the officious, reproachful red line turned away at the door.

When Sriram Hathwar went out on “ptyalagogue,” a word that means “something that makes you salivate,” Grantland blogger Rembert Browne jokingly tweeted, “No shame in that Sriram, ‘ptyalagogue' isn't even a word, which is probably why you got it wrong.” Which is funny, but if we are trusting the devices we use to write, ptyalagogue does not appear to be a real word. Yet it's actually a cool word that could come in handy if only more people knew about it.

Words are like paths from one idea to another. If you keep making a certain connection, eventually desire creates a trail. If you stop taking one path or start using it as a shortcut, you can change the flow of traffic. All these forgotten words are weedy trails to places we no longer go and were beginning to forget existed.

These days, familiarizing yourself with the contents of the dictionary is like archaeology. What are these weird old things? Who used them? And who owns a dictionary now anyway? If you run across a word you don't know, you can Google it.

We've gained convenience, losing bulky dictionaries. But we've lost something, too.

These days, spelling is just another thing we delegate to Benevolent Programs, along with knowledge of geography (there's an app for that), knowledge of history (there's Wikipedia) and knowledge of how to speak to other human beings (for God's sake, send a text!). But as my spell check flagged word after winning word, the wisdom of this plan seemed increasingly dubious. We might never use any of these arcane, impossible words, but it's nice to know that they would be in our most commonly consulted dictionaries if we needed them. And they weren't.

Arvind and the other spellers are now in an unenviable club of people smarter than the programs we trust to run our lives. We rely on the devices we type on and the programs we type in to know what we mean and to correct us. But it turns out they don't know half of what we mean.

So thank heaven for the National Spelling Bee. It's a triumph of the human memory over the hive mind. Ray Bradbury, in “Fahrenheit 451,” thought the mind was the safest place to carry words you cared about. At the National Spelling Bee, it looks like he's right.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at

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