Beginning with GA..
GE and Beyond
GI and GO
GO and GR
GU to HA
Review-So You Think
So You Think...I
So You Think...II
So You Think...III
So You Think...IV
Seattle Bee I
Seattle Bee II
Open Worlds I
Open Worlds II
Open Worlds III
So You Think You Can Spell? (2009) I
Bill Long 3/24/11
By David L. Grambs and Ellen S. Levine
A friend from my adult spellers listserve recommended this book, which consists of hundreds of various kinds of word/spelling quizzes. It is the best book I have seen to challenge even very confident spellers. While only minimally marred by several mistakes, which I will "spell out" in another essay, the book is much superior to other books in drawing out one's spelling knowledge. For example, some of the quizzes ask you to choose the correctly-spelled alternative or specify which words in a narrative are spelled incorrectly or to spell words correctly when give the phonetic spelling and a definition or ask you to select proper spellings of geographical locations throughout the world. Thus, as with any good book on spelling, the primary benefit of the book is to open additional worlds through introducing interesting and little-known words. This essay will illustrate this method by reviewing some words in the back half of the book.
Nine Words and The Journeys they Encourage
1. The phonetic spelling of our first word (bottom of p. 203) is given as "ter-uh-DOL-uh-gee (study of ferns)." I knew that the Greek-derived root ptero means "wing," and the OED gives us about a dozen words, such as pterobranchiate, having to do with wings in some fashion. But here we have ferns and not wings, and so the prefix ptero, while related, doesn't apply. The only three possible spellings for the prefix would be "pterado" or "pteredo" or "pterido"....logy. Well, to eliminate the suspense, the Greek word pteron, for wing (because of its feathery leaves) , was taken over into Latin as pteris, and this became the word that was further taken over by botanists and translators of Latin classical works (such as Holland's 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History) to describe a fern. The systematic study of things always emerges after the word itself, and so pteridology to mean the study of ferns first appeared in 1855; pteridologist, to describe the person studying the ferns, first was used in 1845. Alas, the authors made a mistake here--giving the proper spelling in the back as "pteradology." Actually, as we now know, it is pteridology.
2. While my mind was swimming with ferns, as I wondered whether to plant a "fern garden" this year, the next fascinating word for me emerged on the next page--"SER uh ments (burial garments)." For those familiar with Latin prefixes, one would (correctly, as it turns out) infer that the "SER" probably represented "cera" or "wax," and this would make sense, since in antiquity bodies were probably covered with garments having some wax to hold things together. But confusion can arise, because one might think to spell the word "ceraments," while the correct spelling actually is cerements. If you knew that cerecloth was another word for a burial garment, you might conclude that cerement(s) is correct. English has a lightly used verb cere--to wrap a corpse in a waxed cloth or shroud. Actually the French word, which mediated the Latin and the English, is cirement. We have a word cire in English to describe something having a smooth polished surface (i.e., "waxed"), but we retreated to "cere.." to describe wax-covered objects.
But even though one might be satified with knowing yet another word, it was the appearance of the word in 1604 that led me to do some thinking... Shakespeare invented the term in English in a typically eloquent passage from Hamlet:
"Tell Why thy canoniz'd bones hearsed in death/
Have burst their cerements...," I.iv.29.
I think it is time to replace the phrase "rolling" (or spinning) in his grave" with "bursting his cerements." We often hear people say that doing something today would send Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or someone else "spinning in his grave" (i.e., he would be amazed/disappointed with a current practice). But I think the phrase is overused; "burst his cerements" would not only make people stop and wonder what is going on, but it might help them learn the weakness of just repeating cliches that have lost their potency. One might say: "Arguing for a union between church and state in America would make Thomas Jefferson burst his cerements." Changing the way we talk is a first step in creative thought.
3. I misspelled the word on p. 204 which was phonetically given as "suh NO tee (deep Yucatan limestone sinkhole with water at bottom)." Actually, this definition is a bit misleading, since the word "sinkhole" conjures up pictures of houses being swallowed up in massive ditches of mud and ooze. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The OED defines a cenote as a
"natural underground reservoir of water, such as occurs in the limestone of Yucatan." Indeed, pictures of these cenote (in Mayan they are called dzonot) abound online-- example http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/mayan/Cenote.html --and the places are considered sacred. Many online definitions do have the word "sinkhole" in them, but I think the word has been fatally compromised in American English. Yet now we want to explore things Mayan and perhaps go on a dive or tour of one of these cenotes. Once you learn how to spell it, you will never forget it.
4. The next word interesting word (for me) is given as "huh LAHL (sanctioned by Islamic law, especially riturally fit food)." Actually, the word "sanctioned" in the definition is an unusual one in English, since it can mean two things--with opposite meanings. To sanction something is either to approve it or to disapprove it. In this regard it is like the word cleave, which means to unite or to separate. Thus, I would have defined it as "approved" by Islamic law. Its opposite is haram, which the Wikipedia article spells as haraam. We are still trying to figure out how to transliterate Arabic words into English. The correct spelling is halal. If the accent were on the first syllable, it would have a double "l."
From ferns to burial garments to underground reservoirs in the Yucatan to permitted food in Islamic countries. In fact, this is a rather too-large leap in knowledge acquisition, I think. It isn't hard to learn how to spell the four words, but really to enter the worlds of these words would require quite some effort, and they are so unrelated to each other that to study them together is almost counterproductive. Words open worlds, to be sure, but one must have a sense of contiguity and continuity between worlds in order for their joint study to yield useful results. As I will illustrate in other essays, a person who loves knowledge (in contrast to a money or power lover, for example), must develop methods and strategies to accumulate and store and retrieve the knowledge. One of my principles is that knowledge acquisition happens best if we do it by assembling clusters of information that relate to each other, such as seven facts concerning the hormones produced in the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas or seven essential pieces of information helping us understand the events of the fateful night when the late Sen. Edward Kennedy drove off the Chappaquiddick road into a ditch in July 1969, killing a young female companion.
Yet, for me, the study of words and maps are two predictable ways to dig me out of whatever over-focused or narrowly-oriented study I am doing. For this reason, essays on words and their spelling/origin/use are still valuable. Ah, one more essay for the other five words.