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January 17, 2004

TT: I prefer not to

I read Our Girl's first posting about Word Wars with interest, in part because I'm the exact opposite of the people portrayed in the film. I've been deeply immersed in the world of words my whole life long. I started playing with my mother's portable typewriter as a child. I really did read the dictionary for pleasure. I launched my first periodical, a mimeographed newspaper, in junior high school, and God only knows how many millions of words I've published since then. Yet I've never been one for wordplay, perhaps because I'm no good at it. Be it Scrabble, Boggle, or Wheel of Fortune, I invariably come up short, a deficiency that never fails to surprise friends who take it for granted that I excel at such games.

In fact, I've never been much of a game player of any kind, except for a year or two in high school when I survived a short-lived obsession with chess. Video games don't even interest me: I've never owned one, or run one on any of my computers. On the other hand, I'm a near-perfect speller and always have been, and so I watched Spellbound with rapt attention, having competed in the National Spelling Bee as a boy. I actually got as far as the Missouri semi-finals, where I misspelled "perspicacious" (a word of which I'd never previously heard, and which I've since made a point of never using in print), thereby losing to a young lady named, if memory serves, Sally Shoemaker. I wonder what happened to her.

It's handy to spell well, especially if you're an editor, but I doubt it's evidence of anything more than an oddly turned chromosome. It certainly doesn't prove that you're smart or creative. When I first examined H.L. Mencken's personal library in preparation for writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, I looked at the presentation copy of This Side of Paradise inscribed to him by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my proofreader's eye immediately noticed a misspelled word in the inscription. The resulting feeling of superiority lasted for about a second and a half. Which would you prefer: to be able to spell perfectly, or to be able to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Alas, my spelling abilities mark the outer limit of my gifts in the area of pure wordplay, which doubtless says something about the limitations of my pure brainpower. Not only am I no good at Scrabble, but I've never been able to learn a second language, and I'm only fair at math. My heart sinks whenever I run across math whizzes or natural polyglots, for their very existence is an affront to my pride: they do things I can't even dream of doing, simply by virtue of superior equipment.

Life is unfair, and I know I have gifts that others envy. I had a friend in high school who was completely tone-deaf--he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, as the saying goes--and who was desperately jealous of my musical talent. I wouldn't trade my musicality for anything (though I'd hate to have to choose between going deaf and going blind). But what would I give to be able to speak and read French fluently? A year off my life? The little finger of my right hand? Probably neither, but certainly something of value, were the Devil to drop by one evening and suggest a little deal. I might, for instance, agree never to read The Great Gatsby again in return for the ability to read Proust in the original. Maybe.

One thing's sure, though: I wouldn't give up anything at all in order to be able to play competition-level Scrabble. Somewhere in Rex Stout's Death of a Dude, Nero Wolfe says that he prefers using words to playing with them. Me, too--but don't ask me to swear that my concurrence isn't faintly tinged with envy. I'm too honest for that.

Posted January 17, 2004 11:55 AM

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