Sunday, September 07, 2008
Buzzkilling Your Weekend
I'm on NPR Weekend Edition to talk with Scott Simon about my article in the new issue of The Believer -- Buzzkill: Picketing the 80th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. (The full text is online.)
My fascination with the long history of spelling reform grew out of covering a picket line at last year's National Spelling Bee. (That's me with the press pass, reacting to a spelling pun.) For a historian interested in reform movements, it's like discovering The Lost World. The groups picketing -- including the Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council -- are the direct descendants of groups founded by such Victorian progressives as H.G. Wells and Melville Dewey . Though they only have perhaps a hundred active dues-paying members left, thanks to wise investments and bequests from those days of old, these groups still have the coffers to mount serious campaigns.
Imagine, say, if the Anti-Corset League had been so well funded that it still could organize protests.
It's a deeply idealistic cause -- many are retired educators frustrated at the difficulties English poses for immigrants and the learning disabled -- and it has survived essentially unchanged for over a century. My favorite discovery while researching it was a series of wartime letters to the Times of London by spelling enthusiast George Bernard Shaw:
One tidbit that didn't make it in: when Shaw died, he left potentially millions in royalties to the spelling movement. (Ironically, this was due in no small part to the screen success of My Fair Lady.) His executors challenged the will in court, and -- incredibly -- the judge agreed, despite Shaw's clear intentions, and cut the bequest down to a few thousand pounds. The mind boggles at the kind of protest you'd have seen mounted outside the Spelling Bee if they'd followed Shaw's will.
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.
Another journalist with me, David Wolman, also has an account of the picket in his splendid upcoming book Righting the Mother Tongue -- a travelogue that also includes him tracking down and interviewing the inventor of Spellcheck!