Ten years ago, I stopped believing that the OED understands which English words are and aren’t hard to spell. I’d link to the article that did it to me, but it’s no longer findable online, so there’s the thing in full. It raises all sorts of perennially stupid issues in spelling:
August 29 1997, Britain: Master wordsmiths fail spelling testFinding that famous authors can’t spell a given list of words proves nothing. Spelling and writing are unrelated skills. The ability to spell is as variable in authors as it is in the general population. For example, Steve is dyslexic, Chip is severely dyslexic, and Hilbert can’t distinguish homophones. Gene and Mary Jane probably won spelling bees when they were kids. The only typos in Harry’s manuscripts are the kind that are invisible to spellcheckers, which means he can reliably recognize errors in words that are pointed out to him. And so forth.
DO NOT despair if you cannot spell nil desperandum or if you get into a muddle over imbroglio. You are not alone.
They are among the most fiendishly difficult words to spell in the English language, according to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Nil desperandum was at the head of a list of lexicographers’ horrors put together by the experts who compile the OED. When The Times tried it out on famous wordsmiths yesterday, the author J.G. Ballard was one who could not get it right. “I must protest,” he said, “that it is not English. It is Latin.”
(Being able to tell whether an indicated word is spelled correctly is the normal sort of spelling ability. Being unable to ignore the existence of a typo that’s within your field of vision, even if you aren’t consciously reading the text in which it occurs, is the kind of spelling ability copyeditors and proofreaders tend to have.)
If J.G. Ballard complained about Latin vocabulary, he’s clearly not the sort of speller who wins spelling bees. Latin spelling is regular, and we pick up the vocabulary from written sources. If you know a Latin word or phrase, you ought to be able to spell it.
No excuse, according to the taskmasters in Oxford. A spokeswoman said: “Many words in everyday use are not English in origin. School pupils returning to school shortly are still expected to be able to spell them.” The list was designed to test even the most accomplished linguistic practitioners who, it was thought, might have trouble with obscurities such as poetaster or rehoboam.Poetaster and rehoboam aren’t inherently hard to spell. They’re seldom-used words which readers are occasionally called upon to recognize, and hardly anyone is called upon to spell—outside of spelling bees and stunt spelling tests.
The idea came from a “back to school” campaign in which the OED publishers put together a list of the most common spelling mistakes. Words such as accommodation or separate are frequently spelt wrongly by children.Right there, I can tell they don’t know what they’re talking about. Accommodate and separate are misspelled by people of all ages.
Even adults have difficulty remembering the difference between licence and license or recalling those occasions when i does not precede e even after c.More nonsense. Most adults who can remember ie/ei could do the same when they were in high school. What makes the difference is what kind of speller you are, not how old you are.
The new list is claimed to be even harder because many of the words break the accepted rules of English spelling, …There are rules?
… mainly because several have foreign origins.Eeeeek, imported foreign words in English! To quote the worthy James D. Nicoll,
“English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and ri[f]fle their pockets for new vocabulary.”Foreign-derived words in English are not noteworthy—unless I’ve somehow missed out on all the people who are going around saying “Hwaet! Merry Infangthief to you! I want a brown cow that gives much milk, for cheese and butter to eat with my daily worts.”
Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the OED, said: “These are words which often defy all logic and sometimes seem deliberately designed to cause trouble, not only for children but parents and adults in general.”Oddly enough, I have long kept just such a list; and mine is far more troublesome than theirs. But first, here’s their puny list:
The words used in the challenge: nil desperandum, imbroglio, hoi polloi, paterfamilias, uxorious, licentious, meretricious, plagiarism, poetaster, counterfeiter, indecipherable. Others in Oxford’s complete list include: shibboleths, fuchsia, psephologist, encephalopathy, jejune, nonpareil, and icthyological.I am not impressed. Fuchsia is the only genuine spelling demon on that list. Psephologist is difficult for its sheer unfamiliarity, and icthyological is difficult because the h in fourth position makes you want to put in an h following the initial ic.** I suppose you could get indecipherable wrong if you thought it was undecipherable, but that hardly counts. And the eis in counterfeiter and nonpareil aren’t particularly difficult, because if you make them ie they’re obviously wrong. As for the rest, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the words to be using them, you ought to know how to spell them. It’s not as though there were obvious alternate spellings to paterfamilias or hoi polloi or jejune.
Bah. I’ve been saving up that story to stomp on it for a long time now.
Want to see my nasty wordlist? I first started compiling it back when I was Managing Editor at Tor. People would phone me who wanted to get hired as freelance copyeditors or proofreaders. They’d rattle on for a while about their qualifications. I’d wait for a gap, then say, “Spell accommodate.”
Usually there’d be a gulp at the other end of the phone. Then some would spell it incorrectly. Others would start to spell it, stop, and say “But I’d know to look it up.” My favorite response was the guy who spelled it correctly; also supersede and bizarre. “Very good!” I said. He chuckled and said “Pharaoh.” I spelled it and said “I’ll add it to the list.” He proved to be an excellent nonfiction copyeditor.
My wordlist was designed to trip up people who spell for a living. Ideally, it should be administered as an oral spelling test, with the words in the order given below:
Bazaar, bizarre, accede, precede, desiccated, supersede, accessory, necessary, accommodate, harass, artillery, battalion, guerrilla, iridescent, miscellaneous, millennium, vermilion, parallelism, commitment, committed, committee, counselor, calendar, stratagem, sorcerer, restaurateur, prophesy, pharaoh, eulogy, feud, fluorescent, suede, pseudopod, fuchsia, jodhpurs, frieze, receive, sacrilegious, seize, siege, weird.Notes:
—The principle is that (for instance) artillery, battalion, guerrilla, iridescent and accessory, necessary are easier to spell if they aren’t sitting next to each other.
—In an oral spelling test, the correct response to counselor is a dismayed squeak: it has several alternate spellings.
—Some words are only hard because their pronunciations screw up our ability to remember how to spell them; thus: calander, strategem, sorceror, restauranteur, pharoh, fuschia, sacreligious.
—Two ways to remember how to spell fuchsia: (1.) The botanist was named Fuchs. (2.) If you pronounce it the way it’s spelled, it comes out fucks ya.
And finally, just because I can, a list of all the variant spellings of icicle, icicles in the OED:
hyse-hykylle, icecles, ice-ickel, ice-schokkill, ice-schoklis, ice-seekles, ice-seskel, ice-shackle, ice-shockles, ice-shog, ice-shoggle, ice-shogle, iceshogles, ice-shoglin, ice-shokle, ice-sickel, icesicles, iceycel, iceycle, icicles, icikle, isch schoklis, ische-schokkill, ische-shackle, ische-shockle, ische-shog, ische-shoggle, ische-shogle, ische-shoglin, ische-shokle, isch-schokkill, isch-shackle, isch-shockle, isch-shog, isch-shoggle, isch-shogle, isch-shoglin, isch-shokle, ise3kille, isechele, isecle, ise-sickel(s), ise-sickle, ise-sicklels, ise-yokel, isickles, isicle, isikle, isykle, izekelle, ycicle, yese-ikkle, ysckeles, yse sycles, ysekele, yse-schokkill, yse-shackle, yse-shockle, yse-shog, yse-shoggle, yse-shogle, yse-shoglin, yse-shokle, yse-yckel, ysicles, ysse-ikkles.I think one of the ways the Time Patrol indexes alternities is by how they spell icicle.