Bill Long 4/13/05
I am in a slightly ornery mood as I write this word essay today. The mood is only slightly ornery because I don't fully believe what I am going to write, even though there is more than a measure of truth in it. I am also ornery because I didn't do well at the Oregon Senior Spelling Bee last Saturday in Aurora. There are lots of reasons for this--I won't regale you with them, but the essay I write today will emphasize exactly the opposite point of what spelling bees stand for--that the spelling of words is simply an agreed-upon convention and that often there really is no agreement on how words should be spelled. Thus, the spelling of words is like trying to figure out how to cite publications properly--there are as many systems as there are people who have thought about the issue, but we just decide that the Chicago Manual (general) or the Blue Book (law) controls. I am of the opinion that if your reference is clear, and you are fairly consistent in how you go about it, you can use any method you want.
Thinking About Spelling
I recalled that Mark Twain had said something about spelling I didn't want to ignore. Here is his quotation: "I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way." During the later years of his life the "phonetic spelling" movement was all the rage; indeed, some prominent academicians, including the founding president of Reed College, Stephen Trufant Foster, were "phonetic spellers." Thus, Twain was probably reflecting on the "freedom" that multiple options in spelling provided a person.
Horace Mann, who apparently was a champion speller in New Hampshire in the 1810s, was quoted as saying that spelling is a natural strength for a person of tenacious memory and no judgment. When spelling bees revived in the post-WWI era, one of the reasons for pushing them was as an "antidote to jazz and frivolity." So, with these rather negative assessments of spelling and spelling bees, let's turn to the word of today, galleass.
Moving to Galleass
I ran into this word in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which I am studying for the National Senior Spelling Bee in Cheyenne on June 18. I consulted the OED and here was the definition given: "A heavy, low-built vessel, larger than a galley, impelled both by sail and oars, chiefly employed in war." Ok. Clear enough. But I was alerted to a "problem" with this "obsolete" word when the OED listed the entry as "galliass, galleass." I immediately recognized that even the OED might not be clear on how it is spelled. I decided to read the citations given by the dictionary, of usages between 1544 and 1888, and found an even much more complex picture. In short, galliass (which the Merriam-Webster spells as galleass--and so that is the spelling I NEED to learn for the Bee) had at least seven different spellings. You have to read them all to let the point sink into you. Here they are.
1. From 1544, the State Papers of Henry VIII, "Foure hundred galleys, foystes, and galyasses. Ok. Spelling 1. GALYASS.
2. From 1549, "This gaye galliasse, beand in gude ordour." From the perspective of 2005, almost every word is "misspelled" here. Spelling 2--GALLIASSE.
3. From 1599, Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 2.1.380 and from 1642, Sir W. Monson in his Naval Tracts, "A Galleass is built...low and snug..and carries the Force of a Ship." Spelling 3. GALLEASS.
4. From 1677, Sandford, in his Genealogical History of England, talks about "The sinking the great Galeas of the Saracens." Ok, now we have spelling # 4-- GALEAS.
5. From Phil Trans (either Philosophical or Philological Transactions, i suppose, but I am not even going to look it up), "The Crew should be under some Coverts, as they are in a Galeass." Thus, we now have spelling # 5--GALEASS.
6. To continue the torment, from 1769, Falconer's Marine Dictionary, it talks about "The quareter of a first-rate galley, otherwise called a galleasse. Here we have spelling # 6-- GALLEASSE.
7. It wasn't until Froude's History of England in 1858 that the other of the "modern" spellings is attested. "A French galliass and galleon...attempted to cut out two merchantmen." Here we have spelling # 7--GALLIASS.
Oops. In a later quotation, after a break in the citations, we have this, from 1592, using it in a figurative way. G. Harvey said, "Whom...I officiously recommende to the Ship of Fooles and the galeasse of Knaues." Spelling # 8--GALEASSE.
It is almost as if I could end this essay by saying "No Comment," and those in the "know" would nod their heads, roll their eyes and agree with the sentiment that fuels this essay. But I have to admit that what I have discovered is fairly remarkable, don't you think? It is almost as if someone sat down and tried to figure out all the possible permutations of letters that could conceivably be put together to come up with this word, and then people willingly picked one of the permutations and used it in their work. It almost makes you not simply sympathize with Mark Twain's comment above, but to agree with him. Multiple spelling possibilities may be the sign of a creative and good mind.
But now we live in 2005, where things have become standardized, where you have to fill out the right form to get the things you want, where you have to file the right papers to be noticed by the court, where you have to complete the same paperwork as everyone else so that your records can be consistently "on file," too. Spelling bees, then, are for those who don't mind conforming, I suppose. It is for those who willingly, and probably without question, learn the conventions and go along with them and are thereby rewarded. Spelling bees, therefore, might be for those who have a quiescent streak, who have abandoned their creativity, who have "CONFORMITY" written all over them.
I think I will now redouble my efforts to do well in Cheyenne.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long