How well do you s-p-e-l-l?

Nation's best to take part in the Scripps Bee

Follow the Bee on: Facebook,   Twitter,   Flickr  or YouTube

The young champion of this week's Scripps National Spelling Bee will win acclaim, a $30,000 cash prize and goodies worth at least another $10,000. All 275 contestants in the May 31-June 2 event -- much of it televised live on ESPN from National Harbor, Md. just outside Washington, D.C. -- will gain recognition and at least a $100 gift card.

Meet Lillian Jane Lesser who is representing Palm Beach County

Meet Alexandra deVere Nelson who is representing the Treasure Coast

But for those motivated more by the cudgel than the carrot, we point out the sometimes-pricey consequences of misspelling.

Long before then-Vice President Dan Quayle mashed his White House ambitions in 1992 by advising a student to add "e" to "potato" -- playing into the impression he wasn't sufficiently brainy -- even renowned statesmen had proved they weren't always letter perfect.

"The Founding Fathers were all 'bad' spellers in today's sense, since spelling rules hadn't been standardized," reports Keith Donohue, spokesman for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

"When their relatives got around to publishing their papers, they usually fixed the spelling and the grammar. ... Not until the advent of modern documentary editing practices in the 1950s did we finally get the unvarnished words of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, et al -- errors and all."

And despite his soaring oratory, "Abraham Lincoln was not a very good speller, even with things he'd have to spell a lot," adds linguist Ben Zimmer, a former editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "He had trouble spelling Fort Sumter," the South Carolina site marking the Civil War's opening volleys. "He kept spelling it with a 'p' in it."

Perhaps it's fitting that, on the Lincoln Memorial, the word "future" is inscribed as "euture" in the president's second inauguration speech.

Zimmer now tracks such linguistic hits and misses as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and The website includes an interactive spelling bee that adjusts to the individual's level. Current Scripps finalists Nicholas Rushlow and Tony Incorvati practice on it, he adds.

Zimmer points out that two officials of the Chilean mint got canned in 2009, after a 50-peso coin was engraved "CHIIE."

But "in the world of coins, that's not considered an error, it's a variety," says Rod Gillis, an educator for the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, Colo. Some 1.5 million of the coins went into circulation. Depending on condition, the 50-peso coin has a collector's value between $1 and $5, Gillis says.

In buying power, it's worth just 11 cents, according to the online currency converter

Misspelling can thwart a job search, too.

"You don't have an opportunity to redo a first impression,'' says Melanie Holmes, a vice president of Manpower Group, a Milwaukee-based agency that hires at least 3 million people a year among 82 countries.

"There might be tons and tons of people sending resumes for one position, and if I need a way to weed out candidates" a misspelling will do, she says. She adds that "companies use electronic key word searches," and a typo or botched spelling could block a prospective candidate from consideration.

A sports uniform supplier committed an error against two Washington Nationals players during a home game against the Florida Marlins. Back on April 17, 2009, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Adam Dunn took the field with "NATINALS" emblazoned in red letters across their chests. The Nats lost 3-2; Majestic Athletic apparently held on to its contract winning streak, based on its website boast as "the official uniform of Major League Baseball."

A remedial proofreading course might be appropriate for the person who approved a Georgetown "Univeristy" commencement program cover.

Interestingly, Georgetown also is the ancestral home of the first spell-check system for the IBM Corp.

"They blame me for people's bad spelling. I have nothing to do with that," says Maria Mariana, one of six Georgetown linguists "drafted right out of graduate school here" to work on the program in the late 1970s.

Mariana now manages Georgetown's critical languages program, training native speakers of languages such as Arabic and Mandarin "to work for the federal government in national security." The stakes for misunderstandings can be high, she says, though "I haven't encountered personally a situation that was disastrous."

Zimmer says words that follow rules for languages other than English are among the most difficult for spellers. So are those that sound as if they should follow familiar spelling patterns, such as supersede or hidrosis.

But both he and Mariana warn of errors born of computer or smart-phone spelling algorithms.

"If you don't undo your predictive texting, it will say things you don't intend,"

she says. "My daughter's friend was trying to type" a message that wound up as "I MIGHT GIVE YOU AIDS."

Zimmer recalls when an early spell-checking program made mistakes such as suggesting "aquatinted" for "acquainted." So he routinely skips the software for his own missives.

"I rely on my internal spellchecker. I want to make sure if there are any errors, I'm making them myself."

(For more information on The Scripps National Spelling Bee visit )

(Carol Guensburg writes for Scripps Howard News Service,Contact her at

Print this article Back to Top