Cialto? Sciolto!

June 08, 2006

To the long list of American cultural contradictions, now add this: There are plenty of signs almost everywhere that proper spelling is becoming a lost art, while at the same time spelling bees are becoming all the rage - really.

In recent years, there's been a riveting documentary film about children preparing for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee: the novel Bee Season, the Broadway show The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the movie Akeelah and the Bee, and last week the finals of this year's bee were broadcast live for the first time on prime-time national TV (drawing decent ratings and even some action from online bettors).

Of course, and here's the irony of it all, there still seem to be more and more eighth-graders who tend to write, say, "hoping" as "hopeing." Thank a generation of "wholistic" approaches to teaching language arts, the creep of e-mail abbreviations into everyday communications, computer spell-check programs, and no-sweat Web sites such as dictionary.com.

As folks who trade in words every day, we're not exactly above collective error or reproach in this regard. By contrast, the battle-honed contestants in this year's bee performed solo without any safety nets. The winner, an eighth-grade girl from New Jersey in her fifth year of making it to the finals, claimed victory by spelling ursprache, German for "protolanguage," a language that is an ancestor to another language. This was just one of many foreign words thrown at this year's bee contestants - as if English weren't tough enough.

Actually, even the bee's judges faltered, having to reinstate the ultimate third-place finisher after they mistakenly disqualified her for misspelling hechsher, a Hebrew word meaning "kosher approval." But perhaps best of all was the correction in yesterday's New York Times, in which it was noted that, in some copies Saturday, one of its stories on the bee misspelled sciolto, a musical directive to perform part of a composition in a light and free manner, as cialto.

While wallowing in a certain amount of schadenfreude over this mishap, we also must admit that there but for the grace of God, and our copy editors, we go. Because, of course, while other folks' misspellings reflect a broad cultural downturn or are just plain funny, ours are, well, simply understandable.

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