D.C. recently to participate in the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee. Whenever I think of
spelling, the word "boutonniere" jumps out because I can't spell it.
Once again, I had to look it up to spell it correctly for this piece. The last time I used
the word was probably at my wedding almost thirty years ago when I asked someone to help
me pin a gorgeous rose onto my lapel buttonhole at 7:30am, before the ceremony. Yes, my
family never fails to remind me my wedding was at 8am. I have no explanation...maybe it
allowed for more partying. Unfamiliar words are used to stump contestants in spelling bees.
If you have ever watched a spelling bee, you know the words chosen are words like
"sardoodledom". I tried to look it up in a very large and weighty Webster's dictionary, but
it was not there; and therefore, I have no idea what it means and that is my point.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Noah Webster published a speller and
a dictionary because he wanted to do away with the elitism of English dictionaries which
ignored the speech of common folk. Webster wanted a national language which would be
"...a band of national union". He saw a standard common English language as a way to
assimilate new immigrants into the country and create pride in the language.
The spelling bee is an exercise in memorization, pure and simple. Kids spend hours and
hours memorizing words they will never use throughout most of their lives. Most are not
learning what the definition of the word is; they couldn't considering the vast number of words
they must cover. Possibly, they may learn some basics about Latin roots and Greek prefixes
or suffixes. Ultimately, they try to expose themselves to the largest volume of words and
also strive to figure out how to sound out or deduce how to spell a word they don't know.
Rote memorization is something most of us know about. We had to memorize "The
Raven" or "Casey at the Bat" or maybe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If you went to a Jesuit
high school and got into trouble, you had to memorize the entirety of the "Hound From Hell".
Few of us can remember much of anything we were asked to memorize; and whether it was
poetry or The Preamble to the Constitution, fewer have any use for that information in our
daily lives. In the course of my education, I memorized poems, speeches, great American
writing, and even responses for the Latin Mass in order to be an altar boy. I have my doubts
that any of this intellectual discipline improved my grades or made me a better person.
While knowing how to spell "boutonniere" might serve some purpose, most of the words
used in this year's spelling bee are not from the language of the "common folk". There is
nothing unifying about knowing how to spell "sardoodledom" or any of the other myriad of
words which will be chosen for the contest. I am not impressed by twelve or thirteen year
old kids who are "trained" to spell words most of us will never use and few can define. You
want a real contest? Spell the word and define it. That would be tough and practical.
Don't get me wrong. Spelling is an important skill. I work every day with adults who
have no idea how to spell basic words, thereby inhibiting their ability to read and write and
get a job. In high school, we were given books variously titled "Enriching Your Vocabulary"
or "Building Word Power". We were expected to be able to spell ten new words a week,
define them, give antonyms and synonyms, and use the word in a sentence. It was valuable
for reading and writing and expanding our intellects. The words were common, maybe slightly
advanced; but they were words you would use in daily interactions with people, use in future
careers, and could be used as tools to creatively write and express yourself.
Our language should unify us. All Americans should be able to competently communicate
in both speaking and writing. Children should learn spelling and vocabulary despite their
assertion all they need to do is hit the spell-check button and everything will be fine. What's
worse, the National Spelling Bee is an exercise in the very elitism Webster deplored in 1783.
While the students who participate should be admired for all the hours they spent studying
words they will never use, their effort does not advance their use of English language skills
nor does it inspire the average American who watches the national news coverage and wonders
where on earth they find the words used and what language they are speaking. Now pardon
me while I try to commit "boutonniere" to long-term memory. What do you think? I welcome
your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org