Odyssey into the spelling universe

30th September 2005 at 01:00
As a child I had an ambition to be an artist and a hidden ambition to be a writer - hidden because I had what I thought was a major drawback. I could not spell.

By the age of 11 I still struggled to spell my own name, found learning spellings almost impossible, read as much as I could but very slowly, and had a fear and loathing of the spelling test. But I loved words, the way they could spin out a tale, the rhythm and the rhyme and the balance of words, the dance of words in poetry, and the play of language. As a consequence, one of my best friends was the dictionary.

Later in life my love of writing, creating and crafting stories, surmounted my fear of ridicule from bad spelling, and through using computers I found out about spell-checkers, something we all take for granted these days. A useful tool, but not if you are a really bad speller like me.

At first I relied on the spell-checker, and threw away the dictionary (not literally, but it gathered dust on a shelf). Then I discovered that a word can be mis-spelled for the meaning the author requires yet still be a correct spelling, so not get picked up by the spell-checker. For example, "below" and "bellow" are an example of two words similar in ways but different in others, that can lead to great confusion.

Also, I found that I missed the tactile distraction of leafing through those thin, heavily worded pages, wandering into words that I had never imagined existed, like "muskeg" (a Canadian swamp or bog). With the computer dictionary there is just the correct spelling of the chosen word.

Maybe computer dictionaries should be more like certain internet bookshop sites, suggesting things like: "Those who mis-spelled 'autocrat' also mis-spelled 'authoritarian'"; or "If you like the word 'quintessential' you may also enjoy the words 'odyssey' and 'pipistrelle'."

Using a dictionary rather than the spell-checker can increase the vocabulary, but spell-checkers, especially when you live in Wales, can be a fantastic source of amusement as they try to cope with Welsh spellings and names, as well as names of friends.

But at the end of the day I would rather get lost in those lists of words, and I hope our children will still appreciate the attractions of a musty old dictionary.

Jackie Morris is a children's author and illustrator based in Pembrokeshire. She appears at next week's Wordplay Festival in Swansea.


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