Of gardeners, snails, and spelling. June 2, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: gardening, grammar, language, Scripps National Spelling Bee, snails, spelling bees
Silence Dogood here. Most gardeners aren’t especially fond of snails, to put it mildly, especially when they get up in the morning, go outside for a peek at the plants, and find that snails and slugs have turned their beloved hostas or long-anticipated lettuce into lace. I confess that I’m torn on the topic. I can’t find much to say in favor of slugs, but as a lifelong shell collector, I can’t find it in my heart to hate snails.
So you can bet that I was delighted to learn that, apparently, at least some snails perform a valuable function in the plant world, namely, pollination. Plants that are snail-pollinated are referred to as malacophilous plants (at least, by those who study mollusks, a branch of science known as malacology).
Now, okay, I have a Master’s degree in science, and I love shells, so I knew about malacology. But I’d never heard of malacophilous plants. How did I find out? By reading an article in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, about the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
As someone who could spell “chandelier” by age six (thus putting an abrupt end to my parents’ spelling out things they considered unsuitable for children’s ears), I was naturally intrigued by the spelling bee. Competitors must be between 8 and 14 years old, and proceed to the final round in a tense environment of despair, tears and triumph worthy of “American Idol” or “Chopped.”
But the words they have to spell, and define between rounds on computer tests, are so arcane as to be ludicrous. Would you know how to spell aquiclude, capitatim, cyanope, erethic, intravasation, lallation, minnelled, pergameneous, sarrusophone, telmatology, or venenate, much less know what these words mean?
I might be able to correctly guess the spellings, but not the meanings. Why give kids words they’d never use unless they became a specialist in that particular field (in which case they’d easily pick them up)? What good is served by forcing children to learn such words, unless they plan to go on to become professional Scrabble players? Only James Joyce could approve.
I love words, and I love spelling, but rather than see an 8-year-old having a meltdown over a word he’ll never read or hear in his lifetime, I’d like to see words that are typically misspelled but in common use, such as “desiccate,” the word meaning “to dry” (as in dried flowers), which almost anyone would think was spelled “dessicate,” or pasteurize, after its inventor, Louis Pasteur, not “pasturize,” like turning a cow out into a pasture.
As for specialist vocabulary, if you’re a gardener, it’s nice to know the difference between etymology (the study of word origins and development) and entomology (the study of insects), and to know that the correct word is “horticulturist,” not “horticulturalist.” You might find it interesting if not useful to know that the correct word for the act of fertilizing a flower was originally “pollenation,” until it was misspelled so often that “pollination” became the accepted usage. But this sort of specialized knowledge, while perhaps appropriate at a horticultural convention, is hardly the stuff of dinner-party chat. (And besides, nobody likes a know-it-all.)
What I really wish is that someone would sponsor a national grammar convention and spark some interest in learning the difference between “its” and “it’s,” when to use “me” and when to use “I” (note: “it’s just between he and I” does NOT cut it, try “him and me”), even between “desert” and “dessert.” (Hint: You eat the latter and try to avoid the former.) Not to mention those strange instances when a word and its seeming opposite mean exactly the same thing, as in “flammable” and “inflammable.” And I won’t even get into the misplaced clauses that cause riotous double entendres, often involving the clergy.
I see so many misuses of our language every day in newspapers, books, billboards, signs, online articles, and magazines, it makes me want to scream. Forget Henry Higgins and “Why can’t the English learn to speak?” Why can’t anybody learn the most simplistic grammar basics?
Incidentally, in case you’re wondering: The winner of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee was 13-year-old New York State resident Arvind Mahankali, whose winning word was “knaidel,” a kind of dumpling. I wouldn’t have had a clue, but I bet everyone in my area of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, the very heart of dumpling-making, would have aced it.
‘Til next time,