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Catachresis

By Patricia O'Hara

Irony: college English professor, PhD 1989, perennially (perrenially?) bad speller, conscripted to serve as judge for the Lancaster, Pennsylvania 48th Annual Intelligencer Journal Spelling Bee.

I’ve dodged this town/gown relations-building task for seventeen years by responding to the request for a volunteer by squinting and looking off into the distance, as if trying to recall a previous engagement—a really important one. I know that spelling bee judges aren’t actually expected to know how to spell: you have the correct spelling of the words on a list in front of you. But so impaired is my cognitive spelling function that I worry that I’m going to be so worried about being exposed as Dr. Fraud that I might not see the words correctly or that I might develop (develope?) situational anxiety-dyslexia. Because there are certain commonly-used words—roughly seven or eight hundred of them—that I never have been able to spell and I never will be able to spell because I can’t trust my spelling instincts because I don’t have spelling instincts. Think: developing (developping?), relevance (relevence?), pharmaceutical (pharmacuetical?).

I have perforce become a spelling relativist. Brocolli or broccoli? Whatever. It’s a green vegetable that’s a principal ingredient in Szechuan chicken and broccoli/brocolli.

I compensate for bad spelling with bad penmanship. When in doubt, I carefully malform my letters so they appear to be written in haste by a woman with way more interesting things to do than carefully form her letters. Bad penmanship isn’t a big problem anymore given that one is so rarely called upon to handwrite. In fact, handwriting and spelling have a lot in common: they’re both vestigial skills. The dictation machine killed stenography, the typewriter killed Palmer penmanship drills, and spell check programs are killing orthography. You won’t catch me mourning.

So from the start, I’m a very bad candidate to judge a spelling bee, a competition that I find about as useful as those crafts projects my son was assigned for homework in elementary school: the construction of dioramas illustrating the forest’s ecosystem, the baking of antebellum johnny cakes, and the sewing of hand puppets of Roald Dahl characters. “Why can’t we just order this stuff online?” was my persistent reaction to those assignments, and it still seems a not unreasonable question.

Here’s another: why can’t we just teach kids where to find Check Spelling on the pop-up menu then invite them read poetry in their spare time. Why encourage middle-schoolers to memorize words like:*

• “aphasia” (the loss or impairment of the power to use words as symbols of ideas)

• “fantoccini” (puppets moved by strings or mechanical devices)

• “oculogyric” (relating to or involving circular movements of the eyeballs)

But I’ve signed on for the Bee and it’s a Very Big Deal in these parts because the winner is rewarded with an all-expenses paid trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. So it matters to the little memorizers. A lot.

And irony is not the appropriate posture for the judge.

Posture: a conscious mental or outward behavioral attitude. Sentence: The professor adopted a respectful posture when she entered Conestoga Valley Middle School at 5:45 PM on March 10, 2006 to serve as judge for the 48th Annual Intelligencer Journal Spelling Bee. She did, however, experience authentic empathy for the thirty-six contestants who “spelled down,” or misspelled words while standing in the spotlight on a stage at a microphone in a large, middle-school auditorium in central Pennsylvania.

And in case you’re curious, the winning word was “balmony” : a showy perennial herb of the marshy lands of eastern and central North America that has flowers with the lower parts creamy white and the upper parts pale pink to deep purple.

The word that knocked the runner-up out of the competition was - and this I swear is true** - “catachresis”: the misuse of words.

Indeed.


*Actual words, selected from the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee Guide.©
**See Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, March 11, 2006.


 

Patricia O'Hara's creative writings have appeared in The Southwest Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Cortland Review, The Sycamore Review, Alehouse, and ducts.org. She is a Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College, where she teaches courses in creative writing and Victorian literature. She’s working on a memoir.

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