Monday, January 26, 2015


The happy little community at Janet Reid’s blog was using, as we do, her beloved friend Felix Buttonweezer in a discussion recently, when the spelling of his name came up. When the dastardly culprit responsbile for adding “Buttonweazer” to the mix published a smiling mea culpa this weekend, I got to thinking (again) about the way many people look at spelling.

An awful lot of us like the idea that spelling is a fixed system, subject to rules, reassuringly constant; yet event he briefest consideration blows this idea to smithereens. Or smithereans, if you like.

History provides copious exemplars of how the Very Silly People of the past used to spell things different ways; Henry VIII’s wives alone give us an almost dizzying array of spelling what was a remarkably limited variety of names (see also: Katheryn, Katherine, Catherine, and so on). Many of the most famous names in history, some spellings of which were pasted on without recourse to primary sources generations and even centuries removed from those they are applied to – and, of course, the translation of names from one language to another give us very famous names indeed the original user would never have recognized. Da Vinci is one of the best-known non-names, but take a look at the "à" in "Thomas à Becket" for a real roller coaster ride of interpolation.

Clovis, of course, was called no such thing by his un-sainted mother, and we have Romanization to thank for a charming variety of sobriquets presumed to be easier on the tongue than what may or may not accurately be called the genuine articles.

But this mutability in spelling is decidedly NOT an antique phenomenon, and that I think is where people get caught up short. In my own lifetime, Peking and the Hapsburgs have seen distinctive changes in Western spelling, and I’ve seen names and ages of world figures reinterpreted very commonly by the most supposedly-rigorous journalistic outlets and so on. It’s all too facile to lean on Reliable Sources for correct information, but even then we’re often dealing with translations – and, frankly, a standard of fact-checking that seems to have mutated itself over the past generation or so.

Personally, I have a big tic about getting the spelling and pronunciation of people’s names correct, but I don’t have time to fret much about the many folks who like to spell my Diane with two Ns or insist on tagging that extraneous Bionic S onto the end of my surname. Or call me Debbie or Donna. It’s a matter of respect from my side, especially given the diversity of teams I have worked with over the years (I used to go pretty bazoo when people mispronounced some of our Indian, Pakistani, or French Algerian teammates lazily), but on the receiving end I’ve learned to take whatever name people want to call me, as long as it’s not insulting. (*)

From a youthful sense of grammatical and spelling superiority, I’ve come to a great fascination with the limberness of the English language. Its linguistic variety and beauty don’t stop, for me, when I hear the word I think of as “ask” pronounced “ax” (it's older than you think, and not racially coded) and I only wish I could see the day when diverse dialects gained the respect all tongues deserve.

All this said, I still can’t tolerate “NOO-cue-lur” and “JOOL-urry”.

(*Nearly a decade ago, I worked with a guy we’ll call George. George was an irascible, incredibly self-assured, talky guy much taken with his own sense of humor and very much an acquired taste, whom I happened to love to bits, irascibility and all. He used to call me “Lady Di” and I let it get to me to the point where I finally told him he had to stop it. His initial response, “BUT I LIKE IT!” was so wonderfully typical of him I grin to this day. And he stopped calling me Lady Di, cold. And I got so I really, really missed it. And still do.

This story is in no way a license for anyone else, ever, to call me Lady Di – any more than it is for anyone other than Mr. X or my mama to call me Di, or anyone but that one Green Beret I used to be friends with to call me Didee, or for anyone but that filmmaker friend to call me Darcey, or my Beloved Ex to call me a Wonderful Bag of Things. All rights to nicknames are non-transferable.)


Colin Smith said...

ButtonweAzer??! Who on earth did that??!!! *ahem* :)

I'm now an old soldier in the US vs. UK pronunciation war. For the sake of communication, I have changed to using US "standard" pronunciation for many words (e.g., INventory, not inVENTory). Some I just can't get used to, though. A tomAHto will never be a tomAYto. And while I will catch myself saying "zee", "zed" is still more natural. "Aluminum" is interesting because it's actually a different SPELLING. I don't know if many Brits or Americans realize this fact. Brits actually spell the word A-L-U-M-I-N-I-U-M.

But I share your beef about names. I really make an effort to pronounce people's names correctly. That may mean asking them to say their name slowly, more than once, and asking if I got it right, and taking correction if necessary. But you're right, Diane. It's a question of respect. My daughter gets quite irritated when people spell her name Rebecca, especially when they've been told it's Rebekah. It's like they don't care. She does.

Mo said...

See? This is why I went into anthro instead of English. The richness of 'incorrect' language is way more interesting than the delusionary prescriptivist tunnel.

Mo said...

Oh, and on the "ask" vs. "ax" question, Futurama confirms that ax wins. You can go ahead and celebrate now.