“To spell out the obvious is often to call it into question” – Eric Hoffer
“D is for … DINOSAUR!” shrieked my daughter, a grubby finger jabbing excitedly at the picture book where an extravagantly-toothed Tyrannosaurus rex glowered sullenly at a small flock of green pterodactyls circling wildly above its head.
She flicked over a few pages impatiently. It would have been charming if she was three years old, but given that she is six, going on 16 (and is, as her teacher assures me on a regular basis, very literate for her age) this occasional lapse into toddler mode, pretending to be something she moved on from several years ago, can be very irritating.
“V is for … VET!” she exclaimed triumphantly, forcing me to look glumly at the improbable image of a rosy-cheeked, idiotically-cheerful vet clad in pristine white coat and spotless green wellingtons standing in a sylvan setting, clutching (somewhat implausibly) a brace of minute kittens with anthropomorphic smiles on their feline faces.
“X is for … XYLOPHONE!” she started, pointing at the picture of the percussion instrument in question, and then stopped in puzzlement. “Hang on Dad”, she pouted. “Why isn’t it Z for xylophone? It doesn’t sound as if it starts with X!”
And there we have it in a nutshell. Our English language is full of these little foibles, eccentricities and puzzles that we accept simply because we’ve been brought up from a very early age to regard them as quite normal. No wonder foreigners find our mother tongue so difficult to learn, no wonder people who are dyslexic struggle with their spelling, and no wonder the military came up with the phonetic alphabet to try to minimise misunderstandings when it came to communications between troops – M for Mike, N for November, and so on.
It’s very useful in the domestic situation too, I find, and not just because it confers a distinct advantage when it comes to answering questions at Trivial Pursuits or smiling knowledgably when the motherin-law asks, in all innocence, why Gordon Ramsey (that most famously-profane of chefs) has named one of his restaurants Foxtrot Oscar. Have you ever been in the situation where you have to spell something out to another person who, for whatever reason, can’t grasp a certain word, despite the fact that you’ve repeated it to him, or her, over and over again?
“My profession? Yes, I’m a vet. VET. That’s Victor Echo Tango,” I enunciate down the phone to the call centre who, for reasons which are beyond me, want to know my profession, when all I want is a quick quote for some travel insurance. It does get a bit wearing, and sometimes the temptation is to be a little naughty, and “help” them spell something by giving them fake phonetic clues, which will actually leave them worse off than when they started.
S for psychology
There’s a couple of different ways you can do this. Firstly, you can use words where the initial sound is exactly the sound that you’re after, but, as with the xylophone above, the first letter of the word isn’t, should you write it down, what you expect; so it goes like this…
“My daughter’s name? Yes, it’s Sue. SUE. Shall I spell it for you? That’s S for psychology. U for euphoria. E for oesophagus.” Give them a few seconds to grapple with this, and then go on to confuse them further by switching your method, so the next piece of information is spelt out using words where the initial letter is indeed what you want, but is silent on pronunciation; like this:
“My postcode? Yes, it’s GW1 4KM. That’s Gnome Wrist Knuckle Mnemonic.”
There may be quite a long period of silence at the end of the phone at this. And then you can throw the call centre into total confusion – assuming the caller hasn’t hung up in despair – when clarification is sought on the next point, by just mixing everything up and heaving a whole lot of useless clues at them; like this: “My mother’s maiden name? Yes, it’s FRANCIS. That’s Photo-Wrestle-Heir-PneumoniaTchaikovsky-Aisle-Tsunami.” And finally, if the person is still keeping pace with you, switch away from phonetics and just give really, really long words when they want something spelled out.
E for enigmatically
“My daughter’s middle name? Yes, it’s DIANE. That’s D for disproportionableness. I for instrumentalisation. A for antidisestablishmentarianism. N for nostrification. E for enigmatically.”
Now if this sort of thing appeals to you, and a certain personal devil takes delight in winding up the hapless person at the other end of the phone, you could follow a theme for your spelling every time you ring up a call centre or helpdesk. What shall it be today? It could be almost anything – although admittedly it’s best if you have a word for each letter of the alphabet.
Different types of fruit is an excellent choice, because you can source the requisite 26 letters fairly easily, from the rather obvious a for apple right down to the z for zucchini, and that includes the u for ugli fruit, the x for xigua and the v for voavanga. Football teams work just as well, although you may need to drag a few non-British teams in for the difficult letters (and just for the record, Xanthi Athletic play in the Greek premier division and Zenit St Petersburg are matched against Moscow Dynamo next week).
“Diane? Yes, that’s Daventry Town, Immingham United, Altrincham Rovers, Notts County, Everton.” Or as a vet or nurse, maybe you want to stick closer to home; branches of medicine, for example? No problem.
“Diane? Yes, that’s dermatology, immunology, arthrology, neurology, endocrinology.” Or pathological conditions. “Let me spell it for you: that’s diarrhoea, icterus, aspergillosis, nasopharyngitis, epistaxis.”
But you could go on for ever. Chemical compounds? Welsh place names? Given that both of these subjects are famous, if not infamous, for the length and complexity of their dictionaries, you could be on the phone for hours, if not days. So can I suggest that if you really dislike call centres, you spend a merry hour or two toying with them in this fashion, and if nothing else they’ll be glad when you tell them that their travel insurance quote is just much too expensive, and that you’ll look elsewhere.
F for pharmacy
However, back to the idea that our language is distressingly complicated when it comes to spellings and phonetics. Heavens, even the word phonetic itself is misleading. Who came up with the idea that some words that sound as if they begin with the letter “F” actually should be spelt with a “PH” – photo, phantom, pharmacy and, obviously, and perhaps rather appropriately, phoney?
False friends, as an acquaintance who is a dyslexia teacher calls them, or should that be phalse phriends?
And so can we conjecture that the tortured genius who came up with the idea of the famous “phoney alphabet” was an exasperated parent who had listened to a child wrestle with his or her sounds for just too long? Never come across it before? This work of art can easily be found on various websites, and is sometimes otherwise known as the “Cockney Alphabet”, because for it to work best you have to adopt an East-end, Steptoe and Sontype accent.
“A for ’orses, C for miles, J for oranges”… right the way down to “X for breakfast” and the gentle sighing of “Z for winds”. You’ll need to think about it, maybe.
Of course, over the years many people have tried to simplify the spellings of our English language, with a singular lack of success. George Bernard Shaw once famously suggested that the word fish could be spelt ghoti, reasoning that one should use gh since it can be sounded as f as in rouGH, the o because it is pronounced i as in wOmen, and ti because that’s how it comes out in naTIon.
And how infuriating that certain sequences of letters that are identical in spelling can have such maddeningly differing pronunciations, depending on which word is chosen. What, for example, does one make of the four letters that are written as ough, a combination which can be pronounced in a multitude of diverse ways depending on which word it’s found in – bough which rhymes with cow, cough which rhymes with off, rough which rhymes with puff, though which rhymes with toe, through which rhymes with too, and borough and thorough which rhyme with almost nothing except, perhaps, an exasperated huh.
Which really, in a way, brings me back to the subject of unusual spellings and silent initial letters. As an undergraduate, didn’t you find technical terms quite surprisingly difficult to spell?
X for xiphisternum
Words like dyschezia and pseudocyesis, dysrhythmia and pneumomediastinum, xiphisternum and cicatrization, were thrown at us on a daily basis, and we had to know what they meant as well as know how to spell them.
And microbiology, pathology and parasitology were made just that bit more difficult by unnecessarily complicated spellings of the organisms responsible for causing disease. Surely it wasn’t just me who stumbled over Cnemidocoptes and Pseudomonas, Ctenocephalides and Pteronymuss as we peered down the microscopes at college? Why give them such difficult names in the first place?
It was frustratingly puzzling trying to decide whether we were looking at a dog flea or cat flea, a sucking louse or a biting tick, Gram-positive or Gram-negative bacteria, without having to sweat over how to spell the name too. And worse in the heat of an examination; difficult enough to recall the disease, sign or cause without having to struggle with the spelling as well.
Therefore, I propose, when I rule the world, that a simplified spelling will be introduced, at least for all veterinary names. Purists may sniff, but I suspect that (were he still around) George Bernard Shaw, for one, would quietly nod his approval, and many others, veterinary undergraduates in particular, will be grateful for it.
And so once I’ve done away with unnecessary letters, we will have in future parasites such as kaylietella and soroptes, viruses such as rabdovirus and bacteria such as mikoplasmas. Indeed I think I may extend my system, and sanction the spelling of words such as newmothorax and fotosensitisation, sudopregnancy and diorea, criptorkidism and pielonefritis.
A neat system, don’t you think? Straightforward, clear-cut and undemanding. It should get things off to a “T”, really. Of course, that’s T for pterodactyl.