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Monday, January 15, 2007


I was working in the lab late one night, posting a comment on a favorite blog, when I called upon a word that I wasn't sure how to spell: rebut. One t or two?

Blogger offers a spell check function for their posting creator. Can comments be spell checked? I compose many posts with a word processing program that also has a spell check function. Too often these catch all the wrong words. What is worse is that my spelling is checked and corrected in a vacuum (double u or double c? Or both??). The correct spelling does not become imprinted or implanted in my brain the way it would by careful study, by the deliberate search for the correct word. And at times I will find the word, and check the definition at the same time, and decide I want a different word. This certainly can't happen with a spell checker. They are simply utilities.

The other word I wasn't sure of: unconscionable. I know the root word has a u lurking in it somewhere, so does this derivative--

Stop! Here is the process as it happens: I am typing this and suddenly wonder if derivative is the word that correctly describes a word that has been prefixed and suffixed. And even as I write this digression, I have to check whether prefix and suffix have one or two fs: why does one word have one and the other word have two? Ah, English!

So in all of these cases I turn to the dictionary. Mine resides on a shelf directly behind my chair, and I spin around and grab it: a well-worn Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in the Thin Paper Edition De Luxe, which is the largest abridgement (e or no e?) of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1936. Why something seventy years old? If one would come here more often to read my ramblings, one would know: it suits me well. It has older definitions. It also tells me that derivative is the word I wanted: 2. Gram. A word derived from another by any process of word development; any simple word not a primitive or root.

So I end these musings with a question: what was the last word you had to check for spelling or definition, and did you check it manually or electronically?


  1. Coign, in an ordinary paper dictionary. Turns out it's an external corner of a building. And now I'm checking my comment for mistakes - you've made me paranoid!

  2. I never thought of doing that. Voting for spelling is an interesting idea.

  3. Google counts...
    definately = 21.4 million
    definitely = 165 million

    (That's the common misspelling that annoys me the most)