Spell It Like You Mean It - Long Wharf Theatre

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Spell It Like You Mean It

By King Kenney

Regardless of your creation theory, humankind has come a long way since the grunt. The great diaspora of modern humans underscores an evolution from guttural noisemaking to masterfully collating diverse sounds to the tune of 6,500 complex tongues.

Today’s humans are multimodal magicians that recognize the inextricable link between their vocabulary and their lease on life. Humans understand how possessions are bought and sold; how love is realized and maintained; how disagreements are ignited and diffused. Humans know that words have an uncanny power, and one’s ability to wield them enhances their access to all that power provides. Each day we fill our mouths, ears, and eyes with words and never grow full.

Words are here, there, and everywhere. Words are, literally, all around us…

There are children newly exposed to the thick paperboard omnibus that is their First 100 Words.

There are grown-ups with self-diagnosed communication deficiencies scrutinizing the overabundance of vocabulary builders and the commanding, albeit patronizing, calls to action tattooed on each book’s spine–Word Smart1100 Words You Need to Know, and Word Power Made Easy, stand out among the many. Unsurprisingly, each book claims to be the best thing since spliced commas.

There are words that have grown synonymous with the SAT, and other, lesser-known words, deemed an etymological level-up for GRE takers.

There are job postings with their ever-present request for applicants with “excellent oral and written communication skills.”

There are industries built on insulating jargon, lingo, and speak that is foreign to a workplace’s various interlopers.

There are the warnings from parents, teachers, fuming lovers, and always cool friends to, “choose your words carefully.”

There are beautiful, moving pictures with powerful wordscapes being spoken, sung, or written in the fore.

There are the millions of sentences–some undulating and others flat–with a topography uniquely formed by ordinary and peculiar words.

And, should you fail to master the art of stringing words together despite countless reminders that doing so is extremely important, there are marketers aplenty purporting that they can solve any message-making difficulty you might face.

Words are big business; the biggest business.

In a world where Big Oil, Big Pharma, the Big Four, and the Big Three (MBB) dominate their respective industries, Big Words are the marionettists controlling them all. Words are the vertebrae interconnecting the backbone of every business. For that matter, words are the fastener of all successful relationships–personal and professional.

Considering this fact, we should regularly celebrate our mightiest adult wordsmiths. Each year, Scripps shines a light on the young, mental athletes who train day and night in hopes of geekily grandstanding as the winner of its National Spelling Bee. Yet, not much is done to celebrate the aged librocubicularists that clip small reading lamps to weighty tomes at night. These word warriors are our go-to mavens when forgotten words hang on the tips of our tongues. These are the bibliophiles that correct us when we mistake Trotsky for Tolstoy, or mix-up the Brontë sisters. More than that, these are the beautiful minds that help us solve Will Shortz’ challenging crossword clues.

I recognize that there are countless awards for gifted storytellers. Still, there is no place for the word smart (that aren’t raconteurs) to showcase their Wernicke’s area—aside from editing our text messages and emails before we press send. Grown-up word nerds need a gloating opportunity of their own: a stage where the pedantic can display their logophilia while a crowd “oohs” and “aahs” in amazement.

There is no better lexical sanctuary than an adult spelling bee.[1] Pitting fully mature wordsmiths against one another in a spelling fight should be must-stream video. Watching the philological brilliance of our bespectacled peers as they navigate Greek and Latin roots, diacritic letters, and seldom used words is an exciting showcase of an unheralded martial art. Alas, spelling combat is not for the faint of tongue. Most of us would be overcome by Petrificus Totalus when placed under warm stage lights and tasked with spelling “dromaeognathous” in front of a thousand onlookers. True wordsmiths are unfazed by such a challenge. In fact, black belts of word fu attack each coinage with pointed questioning (i.e. “language of origin?”) before nonchalantly delivering the correct spelling.

We need the return of adult spelling bees not only for their champions, but for the rest of us[2]. What will we gain by watching the barely visible grin of a word master who knows that it is not as easy as it seems? First, there’s the same awe of human potential we experience with all sports-going. There’s more though. We gain a return to our thrill of learning that is submerged when spellcheck rescues us from our inadequacy on a daily basis. We gain a desire to become a little closer to the human dictionaries on the stage. “They know so many words I don’t know” we think to ourselves. Then when we arrive back home, we’re prompted to take one of several actions. Perhaps we open a book and expand our lexicon the organic way. Others of us may take another try at the crossword we abandoned halfway, eager to up our knowledge of the Lilliputian linguistic thorns. Or there’s the consequence that’s the most surprising of all. We start a conversation with someone we care about, newly aware of how as adults our talents and strengths rarely see a stage, yet nevertheless, they dazzle us.


[1] I view Scrabble as the game of kings, but it’s not a fair comparison. The mathematically inclined can dominate a Scrabble board so long as they have a firm grasp of two- and three-letter words. Where Scrabble is word chess meets basic arithmetic, a spelling bee is a direct fight: misspell a word and you are TKO’d. Totally dissimilar.

[2] My champion days are long behind me. I have gone from standing behind the mic to armchair quarterbacking in the audience.


King Kenney is a former regional spelling bee champion, sought after pronouncer, and formidable Scrabble player.

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