PICKETING THE EIGHTIETH ANNUAL SCRIPPS NATIONAL SPELLING BEE
“What’s the hacksaw for?” I ask Mark Twain. “For these.” He grabs a stack of bamboo rods from the back of his car, and adds a large butterfly net, thick rolls of duct tape, a hammer, poster board, ribbons, and a stapler. The early evening by Capitol Hill throws the ineffectual shadows of office buildings across us, the air convecting heat up from D.C.’s sidewalks; you can smell the gypsum getting baked right out of the concrete.
“OK,” says his friend Tim, rubbing the sweat from his mustache and adjusting his glasses. “Let’s go.”
We slip unnoticed up to room 606 of the Grand Hyatt. Canasta cards lay untouched on a side table, along with Ziploc bags of metal badges and boxes of brochures. An international team of eight protesters is waiting, representing the London-based Simplified Spelling Society, New Zealand’s Spell 4 Literacy, and both U.S. and Canadian members of the American Literacy Council. They’re engineers, retired teachers, temporary Mark Twain impersonators—and they are all spelling activists.
One of them examines the goods.
“It’s for catching bees.”
Out comes the hacksaw and they all set to work, cutting down the bamboo to the right size, and duct-taping picket boards to the slender rods. The average age here is about sixty-five; after traveling thousands of miles from around the globe, grandparents are getting stumped by a craft project. Pete Boardman, a retired bus driver from Groton, New York, reddens as he relives every bad art day he had in second grade. He hacksaws unsteadily, tries unsuccessfully to staple into the bamboo, and then he tangles with the tape.
“Use rubber cement,” counsels Niall Waldman, a Glaswegian transplant to rural Ontario. He grew up in the same area and time as comedian Billy Connolly, and he retains the same mischievous burr as he warns that the signs will need to be strong. “Some of the parents can get pretty testy. They’ll break your pelvis.”
A cardboard box of a thousand brochures bearing ALC and SSS acronyms stands at the ready, illustrated with portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and proclaiming: HELPING MORE PEOPLE LEARN TO READ, WRITE, AND SPELL. Both organizations descend from spelling reform groups dating to the 1870s. At its peak in 1919, the SSS alone had as many as 2,972 members; it now has only 82, and the ALC has just 12. But like their mighty forebears, they’re on a crusade against illiteracy, delinquency, and poverty—all traceable in some degree, they believe, to the English language’s inhospitality to new learners among children and immigrants. Both groups have found new life online.
“This couldn’t have happened before the Internet,” one protester explains. “You can’t organize a picket through a quarterly journal.”
One by one, the signs are hoisted. Organizer Elizabeth Kuizenga hefts one of a cute cartoon bee pleading TAKE THE STING OUT OF SPELLING. Niall’s bears photos of Ronald Reagan on both sides, proclaiming GOOD ENUF FOR HIM, GOOD ENOUGH FOR US. The Twain impersonator—Mike Carter any other day of the year—embodies temporal dislocation by examining a picket sign of Harry Potter: MUST YOU BE A WIZARD TO SPELL? Masha Bell, a British reformer, opts instead for a sandwich board of what sounds like a breakup line: LET’S END THE I IN FRIEND.
The team festoons the picket signs with black ribbons hanging down, and pinned with dozens of badges—I’M THRU WITH THROUGH… LET’S SPELL RIGHT RITE!—until they clank like medieval banners for a crusade against the Sultanate of Merriam-Webster.
It’s the night before the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the picketers are ready.
For as long as there has been an English language, there have been people complaining about it. Most other languages are essentially phonetic: if you can say El zorro marrón rápido salta sobre el perro perezoso in Spanish, for instance, you can probably spell it. Contrast that with the English original: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The sentence is a classic pangram, using each letter in the English alphabet. It also embodies the Anglo-Norman-Latin-Everything-else magpie that is English, for it contains three separate and distinct o sounds (brown, fox, over) and two u sounds (quick, jumps). English contains upward of forty sounds and a meager twenty-six letters to express them, with many letters performing double, triple, and quadruple duty—and all in a manner riddled with inconsistencies. Given the fluidity of the pangram’s letters, for instance, the whole thing could also just as easily be written as Thu kwik braan foks jumpz over thu layzee dawg, or Tha cwyc braun focs jamps owfer tha lasie daug.
Niall already knows the reaction they’ll get for pointing this out.
“They all say, But you’re trying to change the language of Shakespeare,” he mutters as we head down to the lobby.
Yet even Shakespeare’s predecessors were, so to speak, trying to change the language of Shakespeare. In the 1550s, King Edward VI’s secretary of state John Cheke pointedly battled English’s embrace over the previous century of the silent e and long vowels, now known as the Great Vowel Shift, when many words ceased being phonetic. Cheke suggested dropping the silent letters (excus, giv) from royal correspondence; he doubled vowels for long sounds (desiir, liif); phonetically corrected spellings (gud, britil); and summarily banished the letter y (sai, awai). To prove the righteousness of his position, Cheke published portions of the New Testament in his spelling: “After his mother Mari was ensured to Joseph,” reads Matthew 1:18, “before thei weer cupled together, she was preived to be with child, and it was indeed by the Holi Ghoost.” This and similar efforts met widespread indifference, and a 1701 spelling manual described English’s pitiful state thus: “All words which can be sounded several ways, must be written according to the hardest, harshest, longest, and most unusual sound.”
I wander out into the hotel’s mall-like lobby of escalators, polished chairs, and ficus plants. Scrums of kids cluster around tables with laptops and word lists, drilling each other on spellings for tomorrow’s preliminary rounds.
“Akondriit,” one says.
Except that this is not what he says. This is what he says:
It’s on the printout that spellers consult religiously: the Scripps National Spelling Bee Consolidated Word List, which compiles fifty years of bee words under categories ranging from “Words Appearing Frequently” to “Words Repeating with Moderate Frequency” to “Words Appearing Infrequently.” Achondrite is a word that Appears Frequently. You might guess that Infrequent words are real head-clutchers, the brain-crushingly hard ones. But here are three in a row from the Appears Infrequently list:
They are phonetic—they are words you might actually use—they are easy. And therefore the bee has little need for them.
An achondrite is, I am informed before I wander back to the elevators, a variety of meteorite. What variety I cannot even recall by the time the doors slide shut. I think it involves granules.
The audience in the Hyatt ballroom is sparse the following morning, but the stage is crowded. Dr. Jacques Bailey, the bee’s moderator, is busy putting nearly a hundred spellers at a time through their paces. Ariane Bolt, a seventh-grader from South Bend, Indiana, is up, and even though it’s her second bee she seems petrified. I can’t help thinking that she looks exactly like my next-door neighbor when I was a child. All the spellers look like someone’s next-door neighbor, like their summer-camp bunkmate, their best friend, or themselves as a kid. The empathetic terror you feel for them is uncanny.
“Rigorous,” Bailey intones in a flat, imperturbable voice. He is a classics professor at the University of Vermont and the 1980 bee champion. He knows the deliberative pace and nerves from long experience.
“Rigorous,” he repeats.
“Could I have the definition?” Bolt’s voice quavers.
“Manifesting, favoring, or exercising rigor: very strict.”
“May I have the language of origin?”
“French with Latin roots.”
“Rigorous,” she says. “Rigorous.”
Bolt asks for the word in a sentence, plays with the identification sign around her neck, and slowly repeats the word. Minutes pass, and my eyes wander over the backdrop of colored blue lights playing over a hive-and-bee motif and, rather incongruously, the lighthouse logo of the Scripps newspaper chain. Bees and lighthouses?
The audience breaks into applause and she hurries back to her chair. She’s soon followed by Maisey Tucker of Zionsville, Indiana, who blows past the others by answering her word instantly.
Her confidence stands out. This round has the bee’s easiest words, but almost every child still painstakingly asks for the definition, word origin, and sample sentence. Once you utter a letter you cannot correct yourself, even if you know you’ve made a mistake, so spellers are profoundly deliberative on even the simplest words; they scowl with effort, they fidget, they crack their voices.
Of the 286 spellers in this round, only 27 make a mistake—almost all from jangled nerves, by the look of it—but it hardly makes a difference. Most have lost already and don’t know it. This is in fact the second round of the bee: the first is the twenty-five-word multiple-choice written test the contestants just completed in an adjacent ballroom. The words in that round were largely nonphonetic foreign borrowings: takt, stssarcosis, ylem, Bewusstseeinslag… Nearly two thirds of these children will come offstage having successfully spelled a word, only to discover that they have already been eliminated from the bee.
The shy kid from South Bend makes it to the next round. The kid from Zionsville, brimming with assurance, does not.
None of the protesters want to get up too early, and it’s late morning when they make their way through the lobby doors and to the sidewalk. Hotel security is immediately on them.
“What’s your purpose today?” a guard demands.
It’s a good question; all of them wound up here for different reasons. For Elizabeth Kuizenga it’s because of her ESL students, stymied by English’s difficulty; Masha Bell is here because, as a teenage Lithuanian expatriate in postwar Europe, she ran into a brick wall of English despite easily mastering German and Russian; for Niall Waldman, the epiphany came when his son had to study for a spelling test and asked why.
“We’re here to advocate updated spelling,” ventures Elizabeth.
The guard pauses to take this in.
“If you simplify spelling, and make it logical, you improve literacy rates among children,” adds Masha.
“Mmm hmm. Is this guy Mark Twain?”
“He is!” they shout, delighted that the costume has worked. “Twain advocated spelling reform and—”
“Right,” the guard interrupts. Hyatt security has seen it all before. But suddenly he softens. “Y’all got a camera? Want me to take your picture?”
Soon the signs are raised, a box of extra buttons is placed by a CNN van, and the picket begins. The protesters stroll the sidewalks alone or in pairs, brandishing their signs. The first reaction of people passing by is bewilderment; then a furrow of the brow; and, finally, either disbelief, anger, or a sudden acceleration of their pace. Others stop as if walking into a street mime’s invisible wall.
“Are you serious?” asks the father of one of the bee contestants. He is tanned and windswept, a surfer dude with a family, and his daughter looks faintly mortified.
“Oh yes!” Elizabeth says. “We’d like to update spelling. We…”
“How would you do that?”
Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to that question. There are three major factions among spelling reform advocates: the Simplifiers, who would revise a handful of tricky words like thru and rite; the Reformers, who want to fiks evree wurd in the langwij so it reedz liik this; and what one might call the Orthographers, who would invent letters to be added to the alphabet so that our language’s forty-some sounds would be unequivocally represented by forty-some letters. The International Phonetic Alphabet, used parenthetically in dictionary pronunciations, has been society’s one concession to Orthographers; they otherwise seem to be regarded as a lunatic fringe even by fellow spelling activists. Last month, at the annual meeting of the Simplified Spelling Society in London, the titular Simplifiers naturally held sway, but Reformers gamely put on a presentation of “Saaspel” English-to-English translation software. There was only one Orthographer there, and every time he interrupted the proceedings to display his hand-lettered custom alphabet the room lapsed into embarrassed silence. But today in D.C. the factions are united; their picket signs call for a new direction for spelling without quite specifying which one.
A passerby notices the Mark Twain impersonator passing out brochures.
“Where’s Ben Franklin?” she asks.
“He’ll be here tomorrow.”
A bee contestant from Pasadena emerges from the hotel, her hands clasped over her mouth in a gasp of delight. Spelling reformers, here! It’s like finding a jackalope, or a magical unicorn.
“Mom!” She runs up to join them. “Take our picture!”
Others coming out of the hotel are less amused. One Washingtonian takes profound offense at the sign of Ronald Reagan’s childlike spelling. “Listen!” He stabs a finger at the picketer. “Reagan was a smart man!”
Amid all this, Alan Mole arrives. A semiretired aerospace stress analyst and the president of the American Literacy Council, he’s flown in from Boulder to join the protest that he himself started. “It was seven years ago,” he explains earnestly, “and I was sitting on my porch, thinking about how to draw attention to this issue of spelling reform. There’s no Statue of Literacy in New York Harbor—no Mount Spellmore—nothing you can protest in front of. But then I realized… there’s a national spelling bee.”
“Did you see those idiots outside?” Roger McIntyre demands. We are standing in line at the Hyatt’s Starbucks, the picket plainly visible in front of the window. McIntyre’s from Bridgeport, West Virginia, and has a football player’s build, a stars-and-stripes crucifix fixed to his lapel, and a son, Mac Jr., competing in the bee.
“Did you see them?” he repeats incredulously.
“I did notice them, ye—”
“I couldn’t believe it. They want to dumb down the whole language. I told them, ‘I don’t know about you, but we have three hundred kids inside who can spell.’ They said, ‘What about the millions outside who can’t?’ I said, ‘Ten million kids competed down to this three hundred.’”
“What I think people don’t realize,” adds his wife, Janet, a cheerful real estate agent, “is how great this bee is for kids. Not enough parents know about that. We got paid for the week to stay here! And our meals, and tours, and fifty dollars just for showing up! It’s wonderful for kids.”
It’s true: Mac Jr. still looks pretty happy, even after getting knocked out on this morning’s preliminary round. His stage word was brutal, which he got, but the written test actually was brutal—which he didn’t get.
“I didn’t pass.” Mac shrugs as his mother hands me his corrected paper with telltale highlighting marks: error, error, error. The written test wiped out all six spellers from West Virginia.
“It’s OK, we’re having a good time. The bee’s great. Look at this.” Janet pulls out a book from her little red backpack. “It’s an autograph book they have for the contestants. Like a yearbook. Isn’t that sweet?”
And it is. If I was a kid, I’d think the whole bee was pretty sweet. I’d want to go on the Library of Congress and Smithsonian tours, to go to the spellers’ softball game and face-painting, to hang out at the impromptu study sessions in the huge lobby. I’d want to make word-nerd friends.
But Roger’s still looking out the window at the protest. He can’t believe his eyes.
“They want to dumb down the whole language,” he repeats. “Just so the literacy rate can rise a little. These are the kind of people that—that—I bet they call alcoholism a disease, too.”
He may be right. There’s a strong streak of compassionate do-gooderism among the protesters outside, even outright utopianism. Alan Mole doubles as a board member of the Cryonics Institute and talks soberly of terraforming Mars; Tim Travis bangs a drum for “Revolooshunairy Ideeas” like his own color-coded base-12 “Raenbo Calendar” where the months contain five weeks of six days apiece. Such schemes—beating death, altering planets, changing time itself—all share a quixotic enormity with spelling reform, a hopeless desire to shove an unmoveable mass.
Yet this eccentric progressivism bears an impressive pedigree. Among his innumerable other plans for human betterment, Ben Franklin’s 1768 Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling must have seemed of a piece with his proposals for public libraries and better street lighting. He never gave up the idea, and he even encouraged Noah Webster’s efforts to simplify and Americanize the language. “I now believe with Dr. Franklin that such a reformation is practicable and highly necessary,” Webster announced in his 1789 Dissertations on the English Language, a 410-page bit of intellectual throat-clearing that preceded his 1828 dictionary. Webster had to settle for simplifying words like theatre to theater and waggon to wagon; even with his dictionary and his staggeringly successful American Spelling Book, he couldn’t convince Americans to change soup to soop or women to wimmen.
But every few years brought another attempt, like Franklin’s, to rejigger the alphabet. In 1798, Trenton mayor James Ewing unveiled his “Columbian Alphabet,” which he excitedly showed to George Washington, who diplomatically responded, “It will be a work of time, it is to be feared, before it will be adopted generally.” A thirty-letter alphabet materialized in New York in 1814, a fifty-letter alphabet in Philadelphia in 1828, and a thirty-five-letter set in Vermont a year later. Even Canadians tried it, with Montreal educator Michael Barton teaching “uneducated men” with a forty-letter alphabet in 1821. Barton went on to publish the spelling reform newspaper Something New in Boston, and pestered President Andrew Jackson with a funding proposal: “Furnish me at Washington, the ensuing winter, twenty bright, active Indians, between sixteen and twenty-five years of age, and if I do not qualify them… to read and write, in thirty days, I will give my time and trouble.… But if I succeed, thou shalt defray the expenses of my tour.” Andrew Jackson’s response to the notion of helping Indians has, alas, not been recorded.
The movement was active in England as well. In the late 1830s Isaac Pitman, best known as the inventor of stenography, became a powerful advocate for spelling reform. Others were less influential, such as “Thibaudin’s Proposed Original System” of 1842 and its jaw-droppingly weird alphanumeric alphabet. Not to be outdone, an irascible expatriate Polish physician published a mouth-frother of a pamphlet in 1844, Anti-Absurd or Phrenotypic Alphabet, that thunders at spelling textbooks (“AN ABOMINABLE ABSURDITY”), at dictionaries (“as if some direful plague had deprived her inhabitants of the power of spelling without such expensive and disgusting aids”), and at the entire English language’s “LABRYNITHIC INEXTRICABILITY… [and] INCUBUS-LIKE ABSURDITIES.” The cover features this italicized goad: “Intelligent Englishmen cannot learn to read and write correctly in less than years—The Russian brutes achieve the same in one month!!!”
Both books were thoughtful enough to render the Lord’s Prayer into their new versions of English:
(Thibaudin’s Proposed Original System)
At least one church heard their prayers, for in 1854, Brigham Young directed his followers to employ a beautifully unreadable thirty-eight-letter “Deseret Alphabet.” To any old Boston readers of Michael Barton’s Something New alphabet, the Mormon letters looked curiously familiar. Barton, it turns out, had attempted to become one of Young’s converts—and Young, perhaps, returned the favor.
Dizzying variants of simplified spelling and new alphabets spread across Britain and the U.S., even as recognizably modern spelling bees—celebrating all that is perverse about English—began appearing around 1876. Ironically, the first International Conference for the Amendment of the English Orthography was convened in Philadelphia that year. Bees and reformers have competed for our orthography ever since—though I don’t mention this illustrious history to the still-irate Roger at Starbucks.
“If I wasn’t with my son here,” he fumes, “I’d have told them to put those signs where the sun don’t shine.”
The picket is working.
“They want as many of us as possible!” Elizabeth yells. New Zealand’s News One is here, delighted to find two New Zealanders in the same place—there’s a Kiwi speller who made a surprise comeback inside, reinstated after judges misunderstood her accent, and there’s an elderly New Zealander named Allan Campbell protesting outside. The crew wants to film everyone milling and protesting between the hotel’s taxi rank and the Starbucks. This is staged for the camera, because after hours of wandering aimlessly around the sidewalks, it’s the first time today that the protesters have gathered into a classic circle-your-wagons picket. Once the protest is anointed by television, other media begin to cluster. Soon seven journalists are covering the picket, nearly outnumbering the protesters themselves. When they’re finished interviewing and taking notes, Allan is pacing the sidewalk with his sign and beaming.
“The Seattle Times came to me. Tim got the L.A. Times. Masha got the Times of London. It’s going well!”
Everybody’s legs are getting tired, but round four of the bee is ending inside, and so we wait for the rush. I stare at a dilapidated building across H Street, a brooding brick hulk with wood shoring beams visible through its missing windowpanes. Neither the picketers nor the lingering reporters notice it; Washington is full of such buildings. It nearly fell to the wrecking ball a few years back, and hidden among the permits was this curious fact: In the 1920s it was an Americanization school, opened after a wave of wartime paranoia and charged with transforming ideologically suspect immigrants into oath-swearing patriots. The first thing the immigrants were drilled in—the first line of defense thrown up against Bolshevism—was the English language.
With the spellers pared down to fifty-nine for tomorrow morning’s quarter finals, crowds come pouring out of the hotel. Children survey the picket and collect souvenir badges. One pair of parents actually marches back and thrusts the badges at Elizabeth, snapping, “We don’t want them to have them.” But others just seem to enjoy the spectacle.
“I’ve already been eliminated,” admits Lucy, an eleven-year-old speller from Harrisonburg, Virginia. She got feudal right in the second round before learning that she’d lost the written round; now she wants to have her picture taken with Mark Twain. The protesters melt.
“Congratulations on getting this far!” Elizabeth consoles her. “It’s quite an achievement.”
She says this with such sincerity that nobody doubts her, even as she’s picketing the event. In fact, the only truly provocative act so far has been leaving the box of ALC buttons by a TV van. A CNN crew member bugged out, thinking the package might be a bomb.
“We’re lucky,” Twain admits to Niall. “He was about to call the police. He was pretty mad.”
Niall considers this for a moment.
“Did you tell him you want to take the b out of bomb?”
By the time the protesters get inside the Hyatt for dinner, they’re buoyant.
“It’s going better this time,” Niall ventures.
“We didn’t have goofy spellings on the signs,” Elizabeth says. “That’s why.”
It’s an old dilemma: Do you make reform’s case with signs and tracts in traditional spelling? Or do you advocate reformed spelling with reformed spelling? What about with a few simplified words? Or with a whole new alphabet? It takes a rather special personality, shall we say, to picket with a sign containing a forty-letter alphabet.
Even the first convention, in 1876, found itself splitting into Simplifiers, Reformers, and Orthographers. The resulting Spelling Reform Association issued its first “Buletinz” in 1877 in reformed spelling, and by the third issue was using a new alphabet. SRA officer and library decimal innovator Melville Dewey even publicly changed his name to Melvil Dui; fellow officer Eliza Burns both renamed herself Burnz and christened her baby daughter Foneta. Their movement was in the vanguard of progressive reform: Dewey also edited the Metric Advocate, and Burnz was an associate of suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Like the metric system, spelling reform promised modern orderliness where there had been parochial disarray; like suffrage, it promised equality, this time to undereducated and immigrant underclasses kept from socioeconomic progress by poor spelling.
Their giddy sense of possibility garnered extraordinary support: William James, publisher Henry Holt, and Harper’s editor W.D. Howells all joined the American committee; Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin both served as vice presidents of a British counterpart. The Chicago Tribune, in the first of many such attempts by the paper, began using spellings like thru and rite on its pages in 1880—and that same year, Rhode Island representative Latimer Ballou even introduced a House bill for spelling reform.
There was only one problem: reformed spellings looked, well, illiterate.
“I am in favor of any scheme for the reform of our spelling which shall not involve changes offensive to the eye,” W. D. Howells announced at an 1895 SRA meeting. But new spelling schemes always offend the eye. Since the 1850s a thriving comedic genre had evolved around this kind of writing by humorist Artemus Ward: “Toosday nite I peared be4 a C of upturned faces in the Red Skool House.” Humorists from Petroleum Nasby (“What cood they hev bin thinkin uv?”) to Josh Billings (“I luv to gaze upon a hily eddikated and intilektooal woman”) followed that golden rule of nineteenth-century American local color: anyone speaking phonetically is local or colored. Phoneticism was a cheap source of laughs and an ideal class marker, instantly recognizable in dialogue without narrators needing to utter a word of explanation. Artemus Ward might fairly be called the man who killed spelling reform, for the genre he spawned permanently made anyone who writes phonetically appear déclassé.
The Buletinz quietly stopped using the new alphabet and most simplified spellings after a few issues. Eventually, even Melvil Dui had second thoughts. He became Dewey again.
And so it is decided. The spelling reformers will have no reformed spellings on their signs. But the protesters remain unsure whether, in fact, they even want to protest.
“If there were some way”—Mike Carter shakes his head as he picks at his dinner—“to get across that we’re not against the bee.”
“Love the kids, love the bee, hate the spelling,” Niall suggests.
This subtle distinction, it seems, has been bothering Elizabeth all along.
“This is why I was arguing against the picket signs! People think we’re protesting the bee.”
“But it is a protest, isn’t it?” Niall shoots back.
Nobody quite knows how to answer this. Are they against the bee or not? I look over at the ALC’s president as he considers his plate. Alan Mole seems truly torn about the bee.
“I’ve been trying”—Alan leans forward—“to contact Paige Kimball.”
“The director of the bee?” I ask.
“We should ask her if we can do a presentation. Something on the history of spelling, as part of the spelling bee.”
So the spelling reformers, who no longer use reformed spelling on their own signs, would become part of the bee. Alan’s also tried a copy of the first-round written test, and passed it with flying colors.
“I was so proud of myself for a moment, and then I felt ashamed,” he admits. “I felt ashamed for being proud, and then I didn’t know what to think.”
Roberta Mahoney, though, knows exactly why she’s here. A retired elementary-school principal, she drove halfway across the country to arrive late this afternoon. She has big sunglasses, big clanking jewelry, and a big advantage for any spelling advocate: she lives in Iowa.
“I have a packet that I’ll be giving to presidential candidates when they come through Iowa for the campaign,” she says before handing me a plain blue folder:
LOOKING FOR A FAIL-SAFE
EDUCATIONAL ISSUE FOR
THE 2008 CAMPAIGN?
SIMPLY SIMPLIFY SPELLING.
Inside are hand-annotated photocopies and an Ed Rondthaler on Spelling Reform DVD. Rondthaler, at 101 years old, is the last living link to spelling reform’s Edwardian heyday. The DVD consists of the centenarian’s vaudeville routine on spelling, followed by Rondthaler accosting an expressionless young woman in a library to explain his reforms. Rondthaler whips out a list of hundreds of nonphonetic letter combinations and begins reading them, all of them, to his unfortunate hostage. I imagine some sleepless McCain aide watching this on a laptop in Cedar Rapids, staring out his Travelodge window and wondering, When did my life go so horribly wrong?
Yet spelling reform was a presidential issue once. One of the weirdest episodes in American political history began with this front-page New York Times headline from March 12, 1906: CARNEGIE ASSAULTS THE SPELLING BOOK: TO PAY FOR COST OF REFORMING ENGLISH ORTHOGRAPHY. Convinced that “human language must grow or wither,” steel baron Andrew Carnegie funded an all-star Spelling Reform Board that included Mark Twain, William James, Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, U.S. Commissioner of Education of William Harris, Columbia University president Nicholas Butler, and editors representing every major American dictionary. The board immediately issued a directive changing the spelling of three hundred words: some were familiar, like program for programme or licorice instead of liquorice, but less-familiar coinages included deth, tung, and wisht.
More words, Carnegie promised, would soon follow—and not a moment too soon.
“Teachers have assured me,” Carnegie informed reporters, “that children would be saved more than a year’s instruction if our spelling were simplified.” One reporter remained unmoved: “The time thus saved,” he shot back, “can be advantageously devoted to more serious interests, such as pyrography, fudge-making, basket work, ideology, dancing, poultry culture, the Irish language, [and] tightrope walking.”
Debate simmered until it exploded on August 25 in the Times: THE PRESIDENT ADOPTS SIMPLIFIED SPELLING. To the country’s astonishment, Theodore Roosevelt decreed to the U.S. Government Printing Office that all White House correspondence would be in simplified spelling. Three days later, he extended the order to all federal departments. “The purpose,” he insisted, “is for the government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it.” That same day, Oxford English Dictionary founding editor James Murray announced that he was joining the Simplified Spelling Board, and victory appeared complete.
Roosevelt’s linguistic coup d’etat caught most people off guard—including the Simplified Spelling Board. But Carnegie, cabling reporters from Scotland, instantly sized up Roosevelt: “Delighted, but not surprised. Just like him. Man of progress.” Washington, D.C., public schools announced their support for simplified spelling, as did the New York City superintendent of schools. The Government Printing Office promptly issued thousands of Spelling Simplified pamphlets to be distributed throughout government offices.
The public was a different story. One might imagine a similar reaction today if, say, you awoke to find that Bill Gates and George Bush had revised the English language overnight. Many simply jeered, and clerks at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing amused themselves by drawing up plates that read NASHUNAL KURENCY and SILVR SIRTIFIKAT. But speaking at an Associated Press dinner, board member Mark Twain pleaded for acceptance of spelling reform: “There are 82,000,000 of us people that use this orthography, and it ought to be simplified in our behalf, but it is kept in its present condition to satisfy 1,000,000 who like to have their literature in the old form.” The issue, Twain implied, was that of an educated elite making life harder for everyone else.
With spelling’s role in delineating social class, it’s no surprise that Roosevelt’s announcement met particularly ferocious resistance in Britain: a New York Times correspondent in London reported that “President Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president”; another headline simply read: ROOSEVELT SPELLING MAKES BRITONS LAUGH. An editorial in the London Evening Standard railed against the nerve of the upstart Americans: “How dare this Roosevelt fellow… dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!” “An Anarchist,” pronounced the Pall Mall Gazette. “Resistance of the Filipinos to American rule is child’s play to the stubborn valor of the English ‘ough,’” warned the London Globe, and the Saturday Review dubbed America “The Home of the Free and the Paradise of the Half-Educated.”
What began as high-minded reform was becoming a foreign and domestic policy disaster, and the end was swiftly set into motion on October 30, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller refused briefs from the solicitor general written in simplified spelling. The House of Representatives launched an inquiry into Roosevelt’s order, school boards reversed their support, and on December 13, the House held a tumultuous debate on banning the new spelling, with Congressman James Tawney of Minnesota shouting: “Unless this provision is adopted there will be chaos! Chaos! Chaos!”
Roosevelt dropped his ill-fated foray into spelling, but he never lived it down. When he left office, in 1909, the New York Sun delivered a wickedly malicious editorial of just one word:
The next day’s bee starts at noon, and offstage swarms with eliminated spellers. They’ll stay around—and possibly for years. The bee’s crew is packed with former contestants, making it an intensely family-like affair. “I’m an attorney now, and this is my vacation week that I use for this,” one grown former speller tells me as he arranges press packs. “It is a vacation for me. I love being here.”
Round five gets under way, and Emma Manning, the kid who gasped with delight at the picketers yesterday, is one potential future crew member to get stopped in her tracks onstage.
“The correct spelling is g-a-r-d-e-z.”
“So many words of French origin this year,” a woman mutters next to me. I’m with a true bee family: Linda Bohnen’s a spelling coach, her daughter Corrie is the bee’s project manager, and the three of us are positioned just off camera from the genial ESPN announcer—her son Paul. Both Corrie and Paul, naturally, are former bee spellers themselves.
“So,” I ask, “have you seen the pickets?”
“I saw them”—Corrie leans over—“but I didn’t stop.” Beekeepers don’t have much time to spare during events, and rarely make it out of their hive. “What are they out there about?”
“Oh, there’s been talk of that for a couple of centuries,” Linda tells her. “They have a point, but I can’t imagine making that my life’s course.” And yet she is a spelling coach. Is being spelling obsessive so different from being spelling reform obsessive?
“Lomatine,” one girl onstage repeats over and over, like the word has a shell to be cracked by successive blows. It doesn’t, but it does have a vestigial e at the end that she leaves off. Ding.
It’s over for a lot of kids this round, and half the journalists in the news pit are pounding out laptop reports on how hometown kids valiantly charged into a veritable Khyber Pass of silent letters and homonyms. The other half are writing about Samir Patel, the bee favorite who spun out this round on clevis. He’s been here for five years running, the pride of the bee’s very visible Indian American community, and this last qualifying year is the one Samir was supposed to win. Only, like nearly everyone else, he doesn’t: and if he comes back again, it’ll be to sit in the back rows with the rest of us, watching a new generation getting struck down by the English language.
Ben Franklin has arrived.
Ralph Archibald is the country’s top Ben Franklin impersonator, respectably rotund in his waistcoat, stockings, breeches, black-buckled shoes, and self-invented bifocals—and he’s arrived for this second day of the bee from Philadelphia for a sum that Elizabeth begs me not to reveal. With bequests hearkening back many decades, the ALC and SSS are shockingly well funded—the Simplified Spelling Society alone has £331,000 in its coffers. Either group could, if it wanted, pack the bee ballroom with hundreds of paid Ben Franklin impersonators.
And so we head to the Hyatt Starbucks for a strategy meeting.
“If you want me to find where the media is, I can do it,” Archibald tells the protesters, shifting his vintage cane so it won’t knock over an iced latte. “You just have to stand in the right place and wait.” He points outside the café’s window to the corner of H and Tenth where several television vans are parked. That’s where we want to be later, he explains, because CNN will likely film there.
“I don’t initiate interviews,” he warns. “They initiate them. TV crews hate it when you approach them. If they think it’s their idea, then they’ll do it.”
Once we get outside to continue the second day of picketing, parents are chafing. A father walks up to a protester and asks, “So what are you advocating? You want to redo all the spelling?”
“No, just the sensible parts—the silent letters.”
“What about the half who already spell the other way?” the man demands before walking away. He stops short at the hotel door, spins around, and marches back with the gait of a man about to punch some lights out. “You shouldn’t be out here protesting what these kids are doing!” he barks, flushed with anger.
I busily jot down this exchange, not seeing another passerby accosting me.
“Explain to me what they’re doing here!” He glowers.
“Oh,” I stammer, “you should ask them.”
“No, I don’t want to talk with them. They’re promoting ignorance. They want people to spell like in the ghetto?”
He is black; I am white; it seems unwise to answer his question. I avoid his glare by glancing at the abandoned Americanization School across the street—that bulwark against the worrisome poor—which, I’ve discovered, was also later a school for pregnant African American girls.
“Damn,” he mutters, and stalks away.
But his question lingers. All the spelling activists I’ve encountered in Britain and the U.S. are white. Yet a thwarted desire to join hands with minorities has been evident in the movement from the beginning. In 1846, the abolitionist stronghold of Boston hosted a public exhibition of African American pupils reading from a phonetic alphabet. Future Spelling Reform Association board member Eliza Burnz established a phonetic school for African Americans in Nashville during the Civil War; years later, Carnegie’s spelling reform efforts found the least acceptance in the American South, a mystery explained by this 1906 New York Times headline: WHEN THIS STYLE OF SPELLING GOES THE SOUTHERN DARKEY CAN VOTE.
No minority advocate of spelling reform ever emerged, however. Spelling may be an unjust marker of class, but it’s also an attainable totem of advancement that no parent would deny their child. The bee’s most prominent contemporary minorities—the Indian Americans—are notably reluctant to engage with the protesters, and typically whisk their children past without comment.
But everybody, it turns out, loves Benjamin Franklin.
“What do you think of simplified spelling?” he asks in a kindly tone as a speller from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, takes a brochure from him. She won’t rise to the bait, but wants her picture taken with him anyway. TV cameras gather round as Archibald, resplendent in his colonial costume, explains his spelling system.
“Yf, you see, is wyf. Y-F…” He reads from a computer printout with orange highlighting. “Wife!”
Franklin is certainly right about one thing: he knows how to get a protest televised.
“We’re on CNN!” the picketers yell to me as the door to room 606 opens. “We’re on CNN!”
Picket footage landed on a CNN bumper, and the picketers are ebullient as they gather in Elizabeth’s room to watch ABC’s prime-time live broadcast of the bee finals. Wine is opened as the cameras pan across the packed auditorium to just 15 kids on stage remaining of the original 289. Elizabeth turns to the foreign contingent in her room.
“Every American you ask can tell you what word they missed in the spelling bee.”
“They had a spelling show in the U.K., Hard Spell,” Masha’s husband says. “But there was such an outcry.”
“People called it child abuse,” Masha adds.
It’s fitting: After Theodore Roosevelt’s fall, Brits picked up the reform baton. The London-based Simplified Spelling Society was founded in 1908, and membership climbed into the thousands, with an eventual Parliament bill to consider simple spelling losing by a hair. SSS vice president H. G. Wells published his novel The Star in both standard spelling and simplified spelling, and fellow spelling-efficiency enthusiast George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Times of London in 1941 claiming that “by shortening a single common word instead of lengthening it we could save the cost of destroyers enough to make an impregnably guarded avenue for our trade with America.” Only a writer, I suppose, would believe the silent e was propping up Hitler’s regime. After the war, Shaw claimed instead that Shakespeare could have written more plays with a better alphabet.
But bad alphabet and child abuse or not, we can’t stop watching.
One by one the spellers fall—cyanophycean, bouleuterion, urgrund—and as each fails his personality flashes out momentarily, like the individual signatures of exploding fireworks. Connor Spencer does rabbit ears behind other spellers’ heads, and holds his contestant sign up to his mouth after each syllable like he’s playing peek-a-boo; Joseph Henares does a Chaplinesque walk up to the mic and, told that the definition for punaise is “another word for bedbug,” jokes, “I like bedbug better.” Amy Chyao looks profoundly grave as she nods and walks off, and Prateek Kohli mutters a poignant and barely audible “Ah.”
Half get a brief bio filmed at their homes: Tia Thomas shows off the caps she knits for preemie babies and talks earnestly of global warming; Kavya Shivashankar does a traditional Indian dance in her parents’ dining room; Isabel Jacobson does her hometown of Madison proud by noting her favorite word is kakistocracy, “which means government by the worst people possible.” Everyone seems particularly impressed when a kid named Evan O’Dorney is shown playing a concerto of his own composition.
“Wow,” Elizabeth murmurs. “He’s good.”
He has the quirky talents and awkwardness of a homeschooled kid, and he’s hardly alone. Many of the spellers are homeschooled, often by deeply religious parents. In the finalists’ bio sheets, almost half specifically mention God, Jesus, or the Pope. “He wants to be the pastor of a church someday!” a sportscaster announces of one defeated speller, and I glance at the business card that the spelling coach handed me earlier: it’s floral with a Bible motif, and a Psalms verse upon it.
Religion is not an accidental presence in the bee, I think. Spelling is not particularly rational, but it is catechistic. Jacques Bailey tells the children a word, and the first thing they do is repeat it back to him. The bee demands faith in a thick and self-contradictory book—Webster’s, whose other great lifelong project was indeed editing a Bible—and demands years of discipline applied to an ineffable presence whose spirit inhabits every nameable object and thought. It has its fastest growth among immigrant populations, and recruits its next generation of leaders from their brightest children, creating a closely knit and welcoming community for them. Above all, the bee is an act of unfathomably difficult labor that is pointless and arbitrary to those who lack faith.
It’s getting past ten o’clock and they’ve gone into overtime on ABC, bumping Ugly Betty as the picketers intently watch the two remaining contestants, Canadian speller Nate Gartke and concerto composer Evan O’Dorney, go back and forth for four rounds of flawlessly spelled pappardelle, videlicet, yosenabe, and zoilus. Gartke finally errs on coryza, a Greek-derived term for the swelling of the sinus membranes. He has, quite sensibly for its pronunciation, spelled it C-h-o-r-y-z-a. If O’Dorney can spell the next word, he wins.
The word is serrefine, a type of artery clamp. It’s a medical term, except medical workers don’t really call it that: they call it a bulldog clamp. Serrefine lives, to the extent that it lives at all, for… well, spelling bees.
“S-e-r-r-e-f-i-n-e,” O’Dorney says confidently. “Serrefine.”
“You are cor—”
The crowd leaps up and roars, and Scripps CEO Kenneth Lowe strides up with the trophy, hoisting it alongside the dazed winner. His congratulations are lost under the applause, and the hotel room of picketers watches Lowe, unaware that this executive’s very company was once their greatest supporter.
It’s a decision that’s forgotten today, but in 1925 the Scripps chain switched to thoro, synagog, and other simplified forms. The chain’s cantankerous founder, Edward Scripps, died a year later, though, and the company went on to become an actual antagonist to reform after acquiring rights to the bee. Buried in its 1952 bee rules is this startlingly specific directive: “The forms recommended by the American Philological Association and the Simplified Spelling Board, respectively, will not be accepted as correct.”
The split between the spellers and activists, it turns out, is no accident at all.
But the winner has other ideas.
Once the tumult dies down and the Scripps CEO steps aside, ESPN anchor Stuart Scott appears onstage.
“You told us before that you didn’t even like the spelling bee….”, he chides Evan gently. “Why didn’t you used to like the spelling bee?”
The picketers lean in, instantly transfixed.
“Well, my favorite things to do are math and music,” the boy explains. “And with the math, I really like the way that the numbers fit together, and with the music, I like to let out ideas by composing notes, and the spelling is just a bunch of memorization.”
“What?” Elizabeth gasps.
“Yes! Yes!” The picketers are hugging and whooping. “Yes!”
The crowd titters, and the reporter won’t give up.
“Would you like to maybe reassess your likeability of the National Spelling Bee? How do you feel about it now?”
“Are you saying I’m supposed to like it more?”
There is a profound pause. Evan won’t say it.
“Oh my god!” the hotel room gasps.
“Maybe a little bit?” the sportscaster prompts him.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit,” the champion mutters, unconvinced.
Elizabeth’s room is jubilant. To 7.1 million bee viewers right now, it is the blurted commentary of an awkward kid caught in the camera, nothing more, and quickly forgotten. But to the picketers, it’s vindication. If even the national spelling champion doesn’t buy “the language of Shakespeare” as a meaningful tradition, then surely this will get others thinking mutinously about spelling?
Bee families are swirling in eddies around the concourse, the kids high-fiving and hugging each other, amped up with nervous energy, and little siblings dance and trot underfoot. Inside, the cameras and the light grids are getting switched off and the temperature of the ballroom is plunging in the absence of a crowd. The reporters have rushed off to their laptops, and nobody’s paying any attention to the spellers. The story is over, as far as the press is concerned, and soon there is nobody onstage save one solitary figure.
It’s Evan O’Dorney’s mom. She’s sitting there, looking thoughtfully out over the emptied auditorium.
“Have a seat!” She smiles and pats the chair next to her. “You’re sitting in the winner’s chair there, you know.”
“Really?” I’m absurdly delighted. These two lone chairs off-center of the stage were occupied by Nate and Evan just minutes earlier. And yet as we talk, a question about Evan keeps nagging me.
“He didn’t seem that excited by winning the bee,” I venture. “I mean, he looked happy, but not… excited.”
“You know, with Evan, winning’s just not that important. He’s not like that. He’s not like me. I’d be starstruck.”
I stand up and pace the stage a little, stopping at the mic. This is what you see when you’re a speller: you look down directly into a JBL speaker—a Scripps podium over it—and the announcers are perhaps six feet away, at parliamentary sword length, and flanking the Scripps logo are hand-lettered signs on the chairs: REUTERS, AP, GETTY. From the mic, you stare across the tops of the judges’ heads, down an aisle, past the black barrel of a TV camera, and at two signs glowing EXIT.
“So…” I turn back to her. “Then why did he want to be here?”
“Oh!” She smiles. “You know, he just wanted to be on ABC, because he wanted them to play his concerto.”
“Those film segments about the spellers?”
“Oh yeah! That’s what he really wanted, and that’s what made him happy. He wanted people to hear his music.”
I start slightly. Evan’s inexplicable performance suddenly makes staggering sense: he’d figured out the one way a random, gawky thirteen-year-old could broadcast his own concerto on prime-time television. The audience in here couldn’t see or hear the broadcast segments—there were no monitors set up, just dead silence whenever a producer announced over the PA to please hold for a feature. So the audience had, and still has, no idea why Evan didn’t even like the bee and seemed scornful of spelling itself. By the time he was in that final round, Evan already had what he wanted. He had his own reason for being here, and it had nothing to do with the busybody concerns of Scripps or the picketers. The kid didn’t care at all about re-creating words: he cared about creating art.
I can’t help but ask her one last question.
“Did you see those protesters?”
“Sort of—not really. I’m not sure what it was for. I heard they don’t want English as our first language or something?”
“And I just don’t agree with that,” she continues. “My family came from Germany originally, and they learned English when they got here.”
I nod. But how did they learn English, exactly?
I congratulate her, and then take the hotel escalators up to the lobby and wander out into the Washington evening. The abandoned brick building still looms across the street, unlit and unnoticed. The immigrants whose children and grandchildren stand upon the bee stage today once sat here in hard wooden chairs, staring into the blackness of their slates at the infinite and infinitive mess of the English language: Sleigh? Oblique? Thoroughfare? Wholly?… Long before Scripps rolled into town, this block was already about aspiration, the abandonment of logically spelled foreign tongues for one promising prosperity despite its capriciousness and illogicality—and that is why the picketers’ fight was lost here, long before they ever arrived at the Grand Hyatt with their signs. Look closely into the darkness, and the irony becomes complete.
WEBSTER SCHOOL, reads the name over its padlocked door.
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