Textism: Does spelling even matter anymore?

f u cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb w hi pa.

You can tell that’s not a text message.  When secretaries were getting good jobs for high pay, no one was texting.

Those School of Speedwriting “>Does Spelling Matter?,” who told an interviewer that “judging character or worth by how meticulous a speller a person [is] ‘is a way to say I’m better than you…. It’s a form of licensed prejudice.’”  No, my beef with spelling isn’t that it protects the ruling class.  It’s that it’s so irrelevant.

I mean, really:  Occurred has two c’s and two r’s.  Is getting that wrong really a slippery slope to barbarism?  The truth is that I always know what someone means by your welcome, and a misspelling never flummoxes me.  I may squirm inwardly when I hear “between you and I,” but I never misunderstand it.  It’s ridiculous that people now say “literally” when they mean “figuratively,” but it’s never so ridiculous that I fail to comprehend them. Dan Quayle was spit-roasted for spelling potatoe with that e at the end; it was seen as evidence that he was just a dumb blonde.  But not a single person laughing at him would ever mistake a potato for a turnip, which arguably should be what’s at stake here.             

It’s one thing for Professor Horobin, or me, to cut misspellers some slack.  In my case, the grammar that Mrs. Bustard drilled into my head served me well on standardized tests, in college and in my career, so it’s easy for me to go wobbly on rules now.  But what about today’s texting toddlers who grow up thinking that lol is a word?  Are we raising a generation of illiterates whose fuzzy spelling is the precursor of fuzzy thinking? 

It’s not as though we can stop them, no more than King Canute could stop the tide.  The coming universal penetration of smart phones, the Wild West vibe of the Internet, the bias of social media for brevity, instantaneity and comedy: these vectors are inexorably torqueing how we communicate.  But are they also dumbing us down?

A study sponsored by the “>Best Columnist award this year, holds the Norman Lear chair in “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him martyk@jewishjournal.com.   

Un-bee-lievable Spellings

Of the viewers who watched ABC’s broadcast of the 79th National Spelling Bee on June 1, how many would have spelled the word meaning “kosher approval” the way the judges did? The Round 8 word trumped the young lady who had to spell it, too.

When Saryn Hooks spelled it H-E-C-H-S-H-E-R, the judges dinged her out. According to them, the word should be spelled H-E-C-H-S-C-H-E-R. But that is not the spelling used in many Jewish newspapers and magazines, which is heksher. Luckily, the judges caught their mistake, and Hooks retuned to the competition to become the third-place finisher. She was luckier than Kavya Shivashankar who lost, misspelling the Hebrew word G-E-M-A-T-R-I-A-L (she spelled it with an O).

Second-place finisher Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, asked to spell K-N-A-I-D-E-L, however, got it right (it was an ironic follow-up to her Round 6 word: K-A-D-D-I-S-H). During Round 10, Ragiv Tarigopula received the “we didn’t think it was that hard to spell” word of the night: Y-I-Z-K-O-R (he spelled it correctly).

Earlier in the E.W. Scripps Co-sponsored bee, during the off-air Round 5, one child was asked to spell M-O-L-O-C-H (you might know it as melech).

The larger question is: Why should anyone be asked for a single correct spelling of a transliterated word? Is that fair when even the larger Jewish society can’t agree on a spelling for Chanukah (or is it Hanukkah)? Well, at least uber smart participants didn’t have to worry about spelling the Yiddish term for untalented loser: S-H-M-E-G-G-E-G-G-E.



Israel has never seen anything this glitzy. True, there have been neon menorahs for Chanukah and light bulbs outlining Israel’s numerical age on Independence Days. But this is another ball game altogether. Hundreds of thousands of people driving on the Israeli freeway this week have looked up at an electric millennium welcome reminiscent of Times Square.

A high voltage millennium countdown is being beamed over Tel-Aviv in lights visible 20 miles away. High up on the side of the glass Azrieli skyscraper in letters several stories tall: “New — Millennium — 1999 – 2000.” Then the message switches to tick off number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until the fresh century blasts off.

As befits Tel-Aviv’s new internationalist image, the sign alternates between Hebrew and English. So far so good. But as high tech as Israel has become, it is comforting to see that some of the old provincial Israel remains. Remember when an English menu offered “sandvich”, “omlit” and “coren flakes”? Well, in the country used to winging it, they still haven’t learned to spell. A week before the new year, it was pointed out that the Azrieli tower sign had left out one of the two n’s in “millennium”.

Embarrassed officials claimed that there was no room on the building to fit in that extra letter. At first they planned to just leave it, in the hallowed Israeli tradition that says approximate is good enough. They soon realized this might be bad press for a country trying to project an image of scientific and technological precision, a society which every day sees new corporations listed on international stock exchanges, a land which routinely pats itself on the back as stiff competition for Silicon Valley. So what was Azrieli’s proposed solution? Erase the English message altogether.

Those who had enjoyed their brief new year’s greeting in English sadly prepared to see it disappear.

But like so many things in Israel, people here didn’t take “no” for an answer. A no parking sign? So leave your car on the sidewalk. No dogs allowed on the beach? Then wait until the lifeguards go home. No cellphones permitted in hospitals? Even the doctors ignore those signs. No smoking in the airport? Just try to point that out to returning Israelis lighting up as soon as they clear customs. No talking in the library? The librarians don’t consider themselves covered by the rule.

“No” in Israel is a relative term, not an absolute. Even when a teacher says no to the class, it’s actually the first step of a negotiating process. From kindergarten on, an Israeli child knows that “no” is flexible. Parking lot posts a “no vacancy” sign? There is always room to squeeze just one more car in on the intake ramp — never mind that it partially blocks the elevator. If people can find space to squeeze through, that’s good enough.

In short, every “no” in Israel has a foam rubber penumbra, and every red-blooded Israeli knows it.

Anglos (short for the former misnomer “Anglo Saxons” meaning anybody from an English speaking country) have earned the derogatory term “soaps” — meaning excessively complacent and gullible. An Anglo will naively leave the ticket line in disappointment when the cashier says tickets are all sold out. The Israeli in line behind him is pleased as pie — he knows that if he stands his ground, argues, cajoles and begs, eventually a pair of “returned” tickets will turn up miraculously in the inside drawer.

This mindset also brings its societal correlative: it is much easier to shoot off a “no” right off the bat — nobody takes it too seriously anyway. When you say “no” in Israel, “yes” is always the fall-back position.

Lo and behold, when darkness fell the next night there was “Millennium” up in Latin letters lighting the Tel-Aviv skyline once more. A little scrunched together, but intact and spell-checked.

The 24-Hour Jewish 911

Help has arrived. Thanks to a special program funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, callers can get immediate personal and family crisis assistance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A social worker at the Jewish Family Service (JFS), a Federation agency, will be on call to give information and assistance at any time.

Callers who reach the Federation’s main number after business hours will receive a recorded message with referral numbers for 24 hour emergency assistance. Aside from the JFS number, there is one for Cedars Sinai Medical Center in case of medical emergencies, and a number for urgent press inquiries. It’s not 911 — there’s already one of those — but it truly is the Other 911.

From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Thursday, and until 3:30 pm on Friday, the JFS can be reached at (323) 761-8800. After hours, the JFS number is (800) 284-2530. The Federation’s main switchboard is (323) 761-8000.

Now, for quick refrigerator magnet reference:

Jewish Federation 24-Hour Line:..(323) 761-8000

JFS Business Hours:………………….. (323) 761-8800

JFS After-Hours:…………………………(800) 284-2530

Rob Eshman, Managing Editor