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June 02, 2019


Personally, I'm only aware of having previously encountered two of those words: bougainvillea and aiguillette. And here I thought I had a large vocabulary.

...the idea that rote learning is a teachable skill using an arsenal of methods was there to guide experimentation.

There is, however, some question as to whether rote memorization is a desirable pedagogical technique. Yes, it has some uses -- simply gotta memorize the multiplication tables. But beyond that fairly limited corpus, it may be less useful or even a negative.

Which leads me to wonder if changing the rules on the National Spelling Bee is really the way to go. Perhaps it is time to shift our contests of educational achievement to something else. A century or more ago, spelling was at least something that anyone, from however tiny and remote a school, could master. But now? I think there are better areas to focus on.

...you're saying that someday English spelling might be as easy as climbing Mount Everest? It's not a bad analogy...

I’m happy not to go beyond base camp.

For everything beyond that, the occasionally surrealistic malapropisms of autocorrect will do.

And here I thought I had a large vocabulary.

you probably know how to use the words, not just how to spell them.

Before writing was invented, or at least was commonplace, humans held their common understanding of the world and their own history as stories, in memory. Which were spoken, or sung, from memory, which apparently could take quite a long time. Hours, days.

The poetic structure of the story - rhyme, meter, repeated patterns - helped in remembering everything. Music, also. The Iroquois used beads sewn into patterns, aka wampum.

Memory hacking - techniques to support and extend human memory - are in some cases ancient. Narrative, rhyme, meter, melody, verbal and other patterns and structures, all have a long history.

For me it was erysipelas and bougainvillea, but I'm with wj when he wonders whether rote memorization is a particularly desirable pedagogical technique. I believe it's a useful technique to know, and I have no doubt that being able to memorise huge amounts of e.g. poetry can be a great benefit throughout life (for later entertainment, or consolation, as the case might be), but apart from that I can't help feeling that teaching critical thinking, logic etc is a great deal more useful.

There's an annual TV series here on Channel 4 called Child Genius, when kids between about 8 and 12 nominate themselves (and sometimes are nominated by horrendously pushy parents), and then undergo various rounds of spelling, mental arithmetic, timed memorisation of random information, and questioning on a specialist subject which they have previously selected and swotted up on, and are then cross-examined on to supposed "university level" standard by academics in the relevant fields. All the kids have previously been IQ tested (not nearly as common in the UK as in the US) and are almost always in the top 0.01 - 1%, and the contest is supervised by someone from Mensa. There are plenty of human interest interviews with the kids and the parents, strategically scattered throughout.

It's a strange show, over about 4 weeks of elimination rounds, and one gets invested in the kids and their life stories, and the fascinating different relationships between the kids, their (often but not always horrific) parents, and siblings. There's a wide cultural range, but kids/families from Chinese and sub-continental cultures are noticeably disproportionately represented compared to their incidence in the population, and it's interesting to see the different attitudes to openly excelling: famously a problematic concept for the rather hypocritical English!

Great kids!

Perhaps they'll make it to the Shite House one day and, unlike the current elites working there, they'll practice proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar in the memos and news releases, if they aren't deported first for spelling while brown.

I'm all for rote memorization, as long as the more subtle educational pedagogical techniques are not ignored.

I don't understand why it must be either/or and not both.

I remember when Barney Fife attended the his 20th school reunion and made the mistake of sidling up to his English teacher, now elderly, and she narrowed her eyes at him and asked churchladyishly "Barney, can you spell 'necessary', hmm?"

Barney looked down at his shoes and actually started giving it a try, "Well..." before stopping himself, being the 36-year old Deputy Sheriff of Mayberry and more intent on reuniting with Thelma Lou.

Declaiming from memory is an admirable talent, especially among the Irish, but when it fails, at least it is hilarious.

Here's Sarah Death Palin, in an earlier incarnation showing us how it's done:


and ...


My best friend in grade school went to the finals in our school spelling bee, only to be eliminated when he misspelled .... "misspell"

He wept profusely all the way back down the aisle to the seat I saved for him, as I had been eliminated in the previous round.

I don't remember my word.

Although it is of course known in other countries, the spelling bee seems to be a peculiarly American institution.
(Though I remember regular spelling tests in primary school, they didn’t bother me much since I read a great deal. Latin vocab was rather more irksome, and I remember only a fraction of what I memorised by rote.)

In any event, I’m more inclined to admire the example of Shakespeare, who doesn’t seem to have been able to spell even his own name with any consistency, and if he needed a word, invented it.

I remember spelling bees as being fun. I was a fairly competent speller (despite my lazy and typo-ridden comments here arguing the contrary), and did well in spelling bees at school, but wasn't a star. I don't remember anyone thinking that spelling prowess indicated great intellectual achievement. it does indicate attention to detail, and effort.

And why not be good at it? I'm good at a few things that no one else cares about, and although it doesn't make me rich or famous, it makes me happy.

What russell said about performance and narration (by memory or improvisation) of history, poetry, songs and stories has served many cultures very well. I wish I were better at that, and it's a tradition that I wish my family of origin had fostered.

Not spelling, but my son and I exchange these name lists every baseball draft season:


Hilarious and fascinating what our parents call us.

Puts Coco Laaaa .....Boy in the backseat.

Could put the baseball nickname thing out of business.

no Van Lingle Mungo?

So many of those are just guys whose families got stuck with funky names. Possibly generations ago. Possibly by immigration officials when the ancestors barely spoke English. Can't see making fun of them for that.

Those whose parents dumped weirdness on them, however? Still not the player's fault. But at least the perp might still be around to be embarassed.

I'm baffled by the whole concept. What's it for?

"Breaking the Dictionary"

Clearly, more, new words are required.

"Covfefe", for example. The problem comes when trying to use it in a sentence.

English is a chaotic mess of proto-germanic, French, Latin, Norwegian, and Gaelic borrowed words, plus whatever other words can be stolen because they weren't sufficiently nailed down.

Most other languages? "It's spelled the way it sounds, just follow the rules". English? Hahahahahaha.

I do know that kids learning Irish have to study the spelling; I'm not sure whether the bad influence comes from English, or the other way around. Probably depends on which side of the Irish Sea you ask the question.

Never mind Irish, what about Welsh? ;-)

When my son lived in China (five years total), one of the many things his Chinese friends were always bragging about was how much easier Chinese surely is to learn than English, because......


An English language essay by Poul Anderson without any non-Germanic words:

Uncleftish Beholding

I'd hate to try to figure out what that essay meant without some background in physics.

That was interesting, but I like Venus Flytrap's quick lesson about atoms in the WKRP episode better, I think.

That essay is brilliant. It takes a moment to retranslate the scientific terms into the ones we are used to. That done the text becomes elementary (pun not intended). I think the retranslation requires less of a background in physics tahn a basic knowledge of chemistry and classical Greek. I love the "lightrotting" (radioactive decay) and the "weeneitherbit" (neutrino).

Poul had a degree in physics, which doubtless helped him come up with this. That and a seriously whimsical sense of humor. (See stories like A Bicycle Built for Brew.)

I love things like Nor are stuff and work unakin. There's an almost poetic quality to it, maybe like the sagas?

Icelandic tries to follow that path, creating new words wherever possible instead of adopting foreign ones. E.g tölva for computer, a contraction from tala (number) and völva (seeress, prophetess). Or efnafræði (chemistry), which would translate as stuff-ken.

And then there is tölvuheim (realm of the wise woman of numbers) aka cyberspace.

original version
updated for the TV series

German does the same, eg 'Fernsehen' for television.

It's mixed and changing over time. Some things have several changes behind them. E.g. French->German->English->German. Often both the German and the 'foreign' terms are used equally (e.g. Computer/Rechner). Foreign verbs often get pressed into German grammar with occasional disputes (is it upgeloaded or geuploaded?). And we create our own English words e.g. Beamer (video projector) or Handy (cellphone).

"And then there is tölvuheim (realm of the wise woman of numbers) aka cyberspace."

Awesome, unfortunately Trollheim seems to be more accurate in this age we live in.


I used to browse the old print Baseball Encyclopedia to find names for characters. I'm not sure how to do it in Baseball Reference.

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