For some reason, with the rise of the Web, interest in spelling has soared. Two recent movies have been released about the Scripps-Howard Annual Spelling Bee, Spellbound and the more tragic Bee Season while ABC and ESPN(!) covered the Bee. In fact, ABC bumped sports coverage in order to offer the final round in prime time (8-10 PM).
So. has the Web played a role in the increase of interest in spelling? I think so. As the creator and manager of two popular language resource sites, I have the impression from all the mail we receive that interest in orthography (correct spelling) is at an all-time high. The fact that one of the most searched-for words on the search engines is dictionary supports my impression.
Why has the Web brought this surge of interest? I think the interest was always there; the Web simply made it possible for people to get at the information they need. There are hundreds if not thousands of websites like this one with dictionaries and other information on spelling (like our own Miss Spelling’s Spelling Center). The Web has leveled the playing field so that now anyone with a $200 computer and a Web connection has a direct connection with thousands of people who know about spelling.
So what about losing the national English spelling bee by misspelling weltschmerz and winning it by correctly spelling ursprache? (My spellchecker has redlined both.)
My impression is that a case could be made that weltschmerz is an English word: it has been around for a long time, it is common in college lit and philosophy courses, and there is no English equivalent. However, there is a perfectly good and more widely used synonym for ursprache, English’s very own protolanguage, made up of proto (= ur-) + language (= Sprache). Ursprache enjoyed a brief popularity among philologists of the 19th century but protolanguage clearly dominated the 20th. Ursprache was a temporary crutch a few specialists used until an English word could be coined. It isn’t an English word.
So the problem is the semi-professionalism of the spellers in the Spelling Bee: they can spell all the words in the English language! So what do you do to knock all out of the competition but one? Bombard them with foreign words from languages they don’t know.
Only in the US do we have to have a single winner. There can only be one winner in the US; everyone else is a loser. A reporter asked Nancy Kerrigan, just after she had won the silver medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics, how it felt to lose. Lose? How could the second best figure skater on Earth be a loser?
Apparently, some sympathy for the idea that we need no single winner breathes among the staff of the Spelling Bee administration itself. The spelling bee’s official website lists only the 13 “top finishers” with the winner, Katharine Close, listed in the middle of them. I like that. The managers of the Bee successfully reduced the competitors to that number with only real English words. We should be happy to know that at least 13 teenagers can spell every word in the English language and see to making this fact an inspiration for all English-speaking teenagers.