Under The Spell
By Cheryl Dietrich
“Lacertilian. L-A-C-E-R-T-I-L-I-A-N. Lacertilian.” Of or pertaining to lizards. With that word we stay in the spelling bee. And I learn a new word, though I doubt how much use I’ll get out of it. My grandson has a bearded dragon. Perhaps I should ask him how his lacertilian buddy is one day. That should confirm his suspicion that I’m crazy as a bedbug rolling off a log.
I am crazy, crazy about words, about their sounds, about the strange combinations of letters that compose them. I have favorite words that I roll around in my mouth like chocolates: redundancy, knickknack, brusque, melancholy, whimsical, lagniappe, admonish, dieffenbachia … I suspect we all have favorites, whether we know it or not, those words we overdo and speak caressingly, as if we hold them in our embrace. Or they hold us.
When I was a child, I picked up new words like other children pick up shiny bright stones. For a whole year I referred to the local drugstore as the apothecary. My brothers accused me of showing off, but I wasn’t. I loved the sound of the word, the magic it implied. Anything could happen in an apothecary, while in a drugstore you could buy comic books and aspirin and that was about it. Okay, maybe there was a little bit of showing off involved too.
In seventh grade, entering into the restlessness of puberty, I longed for the whole world, a longing so deep and fierce (ooh, fi erce—add that to my favorites), I fi nally got up the nerve to approach my mother about it. “Mom,” I said, “I think I have the wanderlust.” Maybe I was just dying to use that word, wanderlust. Could a word get any more descriptive?
Loving words, I love to spell. So when the opportunity came to take part in the annual spelling bee fundraiser for the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, I jumped at it. That year, 2003, someone had complained that LCBC had never fielded a team itself, so I was one of the volunteers to form the first LCBC team. There were three people per team, all adults representing organizations we were affiliated with. We won that year, and then folks complained about the Literacy Council winning its own spelling bee. That was also the last LCBC team.
I volunteer with the Literacy Council, tutoring ESOL—English for Speakers of Other Languages. The people I work with, all adults, are greedy to learn. I believe, and they do too, that literacy opens more doors than any other skill. That’s the cognitive part of me. The emotional reason I volunteer, though, comes from the words, their glorious, illogical composition. English is a challenge, a mishmash of Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek, and many other languages. It’s grown from a scroungy-mutt puppy into an over-sized galumphing dog with a tail that sweeps the candles off the coffee table.
One of my biggest challenges is teaching students how to spell, because frankly English is not only a big dog, but also a teasing little bitch. Once I tried to discuss the letter combo “ch” with a student. I told her how it sounds like “tch” in church (another favorite, that repeated sound like a cabinet door opening and closing on the precious “ur” inside it). But it can also sound like “sh” as in charade and in my name. And sometimes just like “k” as in character and melancholy. I was just going off on a tangent about the guttural “ch” of “loch” and the German “ich” when I noticed her looking at me strangely. I was so deep into my love affair with letters, my voice dripping with desire, that I had gone way beyond what she needed to know. I shook myself, then started teaching spelling by rote: writing new words ten times, spelling tests, flashcards, all the dull paraphernalia of elementary school. Now when students ask me why “c” even exists since it usually sounds like a “k” or an “s,” I just say I don’t know and move on. And I don’t know—it’s just a tease, a sly wink, English flirting with us.
In the Air Force I spent over eight years in Germany. My first landlady taught English at the local school and spoke it wonderfully, though she tended to overcompensate for her German accent by pronouncing village as willage. (They still have villages in Germany, while we only have small towns in America—something’s been lost). We were talking one day, and I mentioned how much I had enjoyed spelling bees as a child in school.
She looked at me blankly. “Spelling bees?”
“You know. The kids line up and the teacher gives them a word to spell, and if they can’t spell it, they have to sit down. The last one standing gets the prize for being best speller—or at least the glory. That was all I ever got, but it was enough.”
She still looked bewildered. “We don’t do this. Why would we? A word is spelled how it sounds.”
That’s the difference between a phonetic language and the slumgullion of English. In German if you hear Geist, you know how to spell it. Or Spiegel or mögen or wunderbar. Why would you need a spelling bee? Talk about a dull event.
But English—a different matter altogether. Why does the vowel sound in “through” sound like “ooh,” while it sounds like “oh” in “thought”? And what’s with the hard and soft sounds of the “th” in those words? Remember the old joke about the word “ghoti.” It’s an alternate spelling of fish: the “gh” from enough: the “o” from women: the “ti” from nation. This is the glory of English.
And this is what makes spelling bees so interesting, the complete illogic of spelling English words: igneous and ignominious; collectible and respectable; knur and gnarl. The chagrined chinchilla chafes at the chintzy chiffon and chastises the charismatic chauffeur for his chaotic chicanery. This is so much more fun than Spell Check!
So take part in an extreme mental sport: spelling. Come to spelling bees. The Literacy Council’s fundraiser, Bring It to the Bee, is a good start. Participate in a spelling bee. Watch the National Spelling Bee on TV. Put together your own bees just for the joy of it. Support your local spellers: kids, adults, all of us under the spell of words.
Besides volunteering with the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, Cheryl Dietrich is also a writer. She has recently finished a memoir, In Formation: What the Air Force Taught Me about Holding On and Manning Up. You can read about her Air Force career at her blog, www.cheryldietrich.net.