Spells for spelling

At my last office job, several of my colleagues were native francophones (very common in the Ottawa area). Occasionally, one of them would wonder aloud about the spelling of a word or the phrasing of a particular sentence in English, and I’d usually pipe up with a response. (At the job before THAT one, several coworkers referred to me as “better than the dictionary.” I want a t-shirt with that on it.)

One time, she noted that she never could spell the word “separate” correctly on the first try. As if she’d opened a drawer deep in the archives of my mind, my mouth opened and what came out was: “There’s a rat in it.”

She looked at me as though I’d gone mad. I laughed and then explained that the letters “arat” are usually what trip people up in the spelling of that word (they tend to use “erat” instead, based on common pronunciation of the word). Somewhere in a novel I read a long, long time ago, the protagonist, a young woman, had struggled with the spelling of that word and someone older and wiser, a teacher perhaps, had given her “there’s a rat in it” as a memory device, a way of remembering the correct spelling.

My coworker was thrilled with this gem and committed it to memory immediately. I heard her use it triumphantly several months later.

When a language is as weird and exception-filled as English, tricks like this may be sorely needed, particularly by non-native speakers. My favourite trivial fact about the English language is that much of its inherent weirdness stems from the Norman (now French) invasion of Britain in the year 1066, by William the Conqueror. Those pesky Normans settled in Britain and brought their language with them, and over time many Norman words were absorbed into the Old English spoken locally. Hence the reason we have words that are similar, but have slightly different meanings: fatherly and paternal, or love and romance, or pig and pork. Imagine trying to explain why this mess exists to someone who’s just learning English. Oof.

So we invent explanations and shortcuts, and hope that they help us commit proper spellings or the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.” to memory. (From the awesome Grammar Girl, i.e. = In other words; E.g. = Example given.)

I know what you’re thinking: in the age of spellcheck, textspeak, and Autocorrect, why should we care, Alison? Well, maybe you shouldn’t. But honestly, it’s fun to be right. It’s gratifying to know things. Doesn’t it feel a little like casting a magic spell when, faced with the need to type the word “embarrassed,” you can softly mutter to yourself “He turned really red and felt so silly,” then confidently type those two r’s and two s’s?

That’s what I thought.

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