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Spell Check: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Embrace Brain Atrophy

From Scott Thompson. Follow Scott on Twitter @foureyedblond or email him at thompson[AT]@borderstan.com.

"Spell check"

Spell check. (Luis Gomez Photos)

If Johannes Gutenberg were alive today, he would slap me in the face.

Five centuries ago, Herr Gutenberg meticulously lined up individual Latin letters on a metal press to create the first-ever printed Bible. The revolutionary final version contained 1,280 pages of text, colors, calligraphy — and no misspellings.

In 2012, it sometimes takes me two attempts to type and spell my own last name correctly.

I like to tell myself that this worsening problem is in no way related to my IQ. I used to be a fairly decent speller, and given the schadenfreude I feel upon discovering typos made by The New York Times or Perez Hilton, I certainly retain at least some command of the English language. Rather, I believe that I can no longer spell correctly because I no longer have to spell correctly. Modern technology does it for me.

My relationship with Microsoft Word exemplifies this situation. In 7th Grade, when my father brought home a table-sized Acer computer, I typed and spelled with joyful precision, out of respect for the old days when I had to write book reports carefully by hand. Today, I use Microsoft Word the same way the British and the Germans used the Enigma machine. Thoughts leave my head and land on the page in a garbled, red-accented collection of letters — decipherable only to me. Most often, it takes Spell Check longer to finish its run that it took me to type the paragraph.

Phone communication is no better. On my previous flip phone, texting was an arthritic endeavor. The tactile button-pressing required a modicum of mental focus and helped prevent a large swath of mistakes. On my new iPhone, the motion is so easy, so swift, and so autocorrected that I have to follow up each text with at least one or two *(asterisk texts) to explain myself.

Even Words With Friends — an electronic game solely designed to encourage proper, creative spelling — is now an orthographic wasteland. Rather than thinking critically about the set of seven letters before me, I often simply throw out a group of consonants and vowels, convinced that they will form some unknown, Scrabble-approved word from ancient Aramaic.  Or I spell a word like “at.”

It’s wrong to blame frenetic 21st century life for this problem. The question is not “Am I really that busy?”, but rather “Am I really that lazy?” Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had argued for man’s “unalienable tights,” or if the Duke of Wellington wrote a letter instructing his generals to “evade” Waterloo rather than “invade.”  One certainly could forgive these slight errors, given other life-threatening priorities at the time — not to mention the lack of impermanent ink.

But they didn’t make such errors. On the contrary, they did what our generation and every generation before us used to have to do in school spelling bees, pen pal exchanges, and testing blue books. They focused, took their time, utilized their minds and spelled (or at least did their best to spell) correctly – with no software system doing the thinking for them.

Today, if Herr Gutenberg asked me in person whether the word “misspelling” had one “s” or two, I would politely shake his hand, hand him the fire iron, and say, “Honestly, Sir — I can’t remember.”

“Let me Google it.”

This column first ran August 7, 2012.

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- who has written 18 posts on Borderstan.

Thompson originally hails from Louisville, Kentucky – where hats and horses go hand in hand. He spent his collegiate and graduate school years in North Carolina, London and Paris, before moving to DC in 2006. An embarrassing Anglo- and Franco-phile, Scott is generally seen Bikeshare-ing the streets of Borderstan in search of the next best Pimm’s Cup or glass of Côtes du Rhône. Follow Scott on Twitter @foureyedblond or email him at thompson[AT]borderstan.com.

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