Nowadays, a simple spelling mistake on Twitter or Facebook is enough to land you a virtual shot in the head. A careless drop of an apostrophe, a letter used at the wrong time in the wrong place and mark my words, you’re stoned to death by a shower of exclamation marks and abuse before the computer-strained eyes of your ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. But what I want to know is why do we care? Surely an extra letter squatting in places it shouldn’t be isn’t the end of the world?
Believe it or not, dictionaries haven’t been around forever. The first appeared in 1604 called ‘A Table Alphabeticall’ by Robert Cawdrey. However, a ‘table’ of barely 2,500 words accompanied by brief, single-word definitions may struggle to define itself as a dictionary compared to the Oxford English Dictionary receiving 4000 new words each year. The first ‘proper’ dictionary was compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755, commissioned by a group of London book-sellers to stabilise a spelling system in desperate need of discipline. Before the dictionary, there was even inconsistent spelling of names. Walter Raleigh for example, the historical figure most known for popularising tobacco in England, spelled his surname as ‘Rawleyghe’, ‘Ralegh’ and ‘Rauley’. In Johnson’s own words, there was “perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated” to which his dictionary was the only solution, making this cyber spelling war seem nothing more than a paradise for the pedantic.
Whilst Johnson’s dictionary may struggle to seem significant knowing we’ve the world at our fingertips with a click on a computer mouse, in 1755 the dictionary was revolutionary. For the first time in history, people were encouraged to spell words in the same way, meaning our written language began to become more standardised. Johnson decided spellings for more than 42,000 words and with definitions that make reading a dictionary actually quite fun. He defines a ‘patron’ as “a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery” and ‘oats’ as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people.” It’s also interesting to note the words he refused to include, such as ‘budge’, ‘bang’, ‘fuss’, ‘gambler’, ‘touchy’ and ‘shabby’.
The irony is that in the printing industry, from 1476 when William Caxton first brought the printing press to England from Europe right through to the publication of proper dictionaries in 1755, printers did all sorts of things to spellings. They’d take away and add extra letters or simply reinvent a word in order to adjust the line length. The process of making a book was a lot more complex than it is today and resources more expensive, so printers were more concerned with fitting a text to a page than standardisation of spelling. There wasn’t a single book that wasn’t littered with inconsistencies, however, since there were no dictionaries there were no ‘mistakes’. As far as printers were concerned, an extra letter squatting in places it shouldn’t be really wasn’t the end of the world.
With the recent addition of automatic spell-check to Facebook following a series of invasions of web browsers and emailing systems over the past decade, perhaps keyboards are blazing as there’s simply no excuse for carelessness. Automatic spell-check should make life easy. However, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve screamed at the computer screen for it to stop incorrectly correcting my articles. The web seems to be programmed only in American English. This computer-induced fury could be attributed to Ralph Gorin who created the first spell-check program at Stanford University in 1971. However, the true culprit goes back to Noah Webster who published the first American dictionary in 1828, containing 70,000 words deliberately spelled differently from English.
Webster switched the c for s in words like defence to make defense; reversed the re to er in words like centre to create center; words like traveller lost an l to turn into traveler and the u was dropped from words like colour creating color. Some of his spellings were more eccentric than others, like changing tongue to tung, oblique to obleek and women to wimmen, but thankfully these never caught on. The aim was to simplify spellings by getting rid of letters that weren’t pronounced. It just so happens that for some people, this also meant making the virtual world an even more stressful place.
So whilst American English now dominates the pixelated world of technology, correcting our spelling faster than we can scroll, it seems there’s nothing we can do but keep calm and carry on scrolling. As spelling and our attitude towards it changes even faster, the only thing that is certain is that the cyber spelling war is on and the dictionary is your only shield.