Crossing the red line
By Alexandra Petri
Published: 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 washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- East McKeesport officials seek disaster funding
- Connellsville wrestling picks up 1st win of season
- Saccone under fire over gun bill
- Duquesne holds line on tax hike
- Penguins center Sutter is thriving despite unsettled 3rd line
- Steelers notebook: Worilds loses sack; Big Ben gets 1st career catch
- Whitaker adopts budget
- UPMC doctor killed trying to help at 50-vehicle pileup
- Hempfield rallies behind 4 pins to beat Greensburg Salem
- Pirates not yet talking extensions with Alvarez, Walker
- Century III new owner seeks to reverse vacancy trend with new theater