austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

You mean before the ending -able?

Spelling, as we know it today (Thursday or Friday) began in 16th century France, where it was discovered the regular and consistent coding of words in common patterns of letters served as an efficient way for the persecuted Huguenot population to acknowledge one another in a way unnoticed by the agents of King Charles IX. But with the passing of the Edict of Nantes, the importance of the secret declined, and the idea spread first to sympathetic populations in Holland and the United Provinces, and then to Poland, where it got lost and found itself back in Holland. It set out again for Italy this time, but misunderstood the directions through the Swiss Alps, and ended up back in Holland. Having had enough of ending up in Holland it jumped into the English Channel and swam furiously, landing fourteen days later back in Holland, where it threw up its metaphorical arms and said, ``Fine, then,'' and got all sullen and sarcastic.

Spelling might have remained in the United Provinces forever except for the catastrophic Great Fire of London of 1666, which made the previous Great Fires look rather piddling, really. Samuel Pepys realized the need for regular and consistent spellings when his first warning of the fire was from a boy running past, declaring, ``Tykke Care! Taycke Kair! Frum Puddenge-Lain cowms a graet Fyren!'' Pepys, not getting any of this, asked the boy to repeat it, and the child said, ``The Allarum bee raised! Phire rayiies throo the Citty!'' Pepys, still not understanding, but embarrassed to say so, thanked the child and let him go. Later, Pepys realized how his brush with death could have been avoided had the message been spelled better, and set about fixing the language. His friend John Evelyn later challenged this set of events, pointing out that if the alleged child had said his messages, the spelling would have been completely irrelevant, and who would write down a warning about the Fire? Pepys answered Evelyn with typical eloquence by shoving him into the Tyburn river. Evelyn granted the point, but asked why Pepys pronounced his name ``peeps'' then.

Consistent spelling caught on in England with phenomenal speed, with early breakthroughs such as ``silent e'' and ``n-apostrophe-t'' delighting the population, although they didn't quite get the whimsy of the ``q is always followed by a u'' rule. The desire of the upper classes to show off their superiority lead to an industry of Spelling Book writers, each developing more sophisticated and often imaginary rules. The aristocracy appreciated these ways to show who was In The Know -- much as they had appreciated the devising of custom words for groups of different animals -- and the need for Spelling Book writers to distinguish themselves in a tightly competitive industry lead them to introduce many never-before suspected innovations, like ``hiccough''. Schools naturally taught to these upper-class pretensions, and long after the fad passed we have the eccentricities of style which let diligent protectors of the English language notice when some other language tries to swipe its words. However, a 2003 conference in Utrecht agreed that a reasonable number of spelled words should be allowed with each person crossing a national border, provided the words are for personal use. Check with your Customs Service if you have further questions.

Trivia: The word ``silly'' derives from ``seely'', meaning happy, fortunate, blessed, good, or holy. Source: Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins, Merriam-Webster.

Currently Reading: The City: A Global History, Joel Kotkin. It attempts to summarize the evolution of all cities of the whole world over the past several thousand years, so it understandably feels a bit rushed.


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