2011 June 2, 8:46 pm
As my live-tweeting of last week’s National Spelling Bee finals attests, my misspellings outnumbered my correct guesses by a factor of five, which led me to the realization that I am not a good speller. I am merely adept at avoiding typos.
I don’t doubt now that my childhood prowess as a speller contributed to my present investment in design, typography in particular. Christina observed that modern spelling prowess is a byproduct of a sophisticated pattern-recognition regime: the definition, language of origin, and part of speech hint at each word’s constituent roots, prefixes, suffixes, and conjugations. More precisely, having believed from a young age that every letter counts gave me a strong foundation for a career in careful consideration of the glyphs themselves (and spaces between them).
Among the 13 words I spelled correctly were six of the nine food words: cioppino, andouille, profiterole, teppanyaki, ingberlach, and orgeat. My proficiency here, I realized, is due less to patterns I recognize than actual omnivorousness: I have encountered five of these six spelled out on menus, on my grocery receipts, on plates placed before me, and in dishes I’ve served others. Cioppino, like Italian sinigang. Andouille sausage with brunch at the L.A. farmer’s market. Profiteroles, like deep-fried sugar-powdered zeppelins. Teppanyaki, when I first tried kobe beef. Orgeat, an almond flavoring, was one my coworkers at Third Street Coffee didn’t know how to pronounce, one that no one ever ordered, but it was there whenever I emptied, cleaned, and refilled the syrup cabinet. It was happenstance – not methodical curiosity – that helped me spell 13 of the most befuddling English words that challenged spellers that night.
Which leads me back to the (foregone?) conclusion that the greatest preparation for something like the National Spelling Bee, a design career, and lots of other challenges and ambitions is a kind of applied omnivorousness: the ability to synthesize all the info-plankton we’re sucking through the baleen of our formal educations, Google Reader, and just living in the world into exacting compositions of ambergris, one letter at a time.
My personal challenge has not been finding plankton; it’s been strengthening my baleen filter. Preparing for spelling bees by organizing chunks of letters into languages of origin and parts of speech, to be summoned at a moment’s notice, is good exercise.
Next is getting over my fear of the bell.
Related: NPR’s preview of the 2011 Associated Press food guidelines (via Christina).