Column: A Good Dictionary Remains a Ptyalagogue
If my spell check is to be believed, the Scripps National Spelling Bee that concluded Thursday night consisted of a group of very talented, dedicated kids spelling completely made-up nonsense words for several hours.
The winner? Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y. The winning word? Knaidel. It’s a noun. It means “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming.”
But type it, and a red line appears underneath it.
In fact, that was a theme of the evening. Nearly every time one of the indefatigable 11 finalists — the creme de la creme of the 281 hopefuls who came to Washington to compete — would spell a word, Microsoft Word would insist that the word did not exist.
Of the 57 words in the finals, spell check was adamant that 48 were not actual words.
Nope, it would say when I typed in the name of a small boat for catching tuna (thonnier) or a Hebrew word for a place of destruction (Abaddon) or a word meaning hazel-colored (avellaneous). There were whole hosts of remarkable words that had come from centuries away — medieval reed instruments, bugle calls, chests of drawers, even a word of Greek origin meaning “hatred of new ideas” (misocainea) that the officious, reproachful red line turned away at the door. Lethean, a mythological term meaning conducive to forgetfulness? Forget about it.
When Sriram Hathwar went out on “ptyalagogue,” a word that means “something that makes you salivate,” Grantland blogger Rembert Browne jokingly tweeted, “No shame in that Sriram, ‘ptyalagogue’ isn’t even a word, which is probably why you got it wrong, because they gave you a made up word.” Which is funny, and, yes, society probably isn’t going to make “ptyalagogue” happen, but if we are trusting the devices we use to write, ptyalagogue does not appear to be a real word. Yet it is. And it’s actually a cool word that could come in handy if only more people knew about it.
Words are like paths from one idea to another. If you keep making a certain connection, eventually desire creates a trail. “YOLO” and “3” creep into the dictionary over the annual protests of purist lexicographers. If you stop taking one path, or start using it as a shortcut (exacerbating, in common use, means what aggravating used to mean, which in turn means what irritating used to mean), you can change the flow of traffic. All these forgotten words are weedy trails to places we no longer go and were beginning to forget existed.
These days, familiarizing yourself with the contents of the dictionary is like archaeology. What are these weird old things? Who used them? What were they for? And who owns a dictionary now anyway? If you run across a word you don’t know, you can Google it. But when are you likely to run across a word you don’t know?
The Scripps official book readily admits that many of these words are camp friends — you encounter them once, become intimately familiar with their origins, habits and quirks, and then never hear from them again. (“When will the spellers ever see or use these words again?” “Maybe never. And that’s fine by us.”)
We’ve gained convenience, losing bulky dictionaries. But we’ve lost something, too.
These days, spelling is just another thing we delegate to Benevolent Programs, along with knowledge of geography (there’s an app for that), knowledge of history (there’s Wikipedia) and knowledge of how to speak to other human beings (for God’s sake, send a text!). But as my spell check flagged word after winning word, the wisdom of this plan seemed increasingly dubious.
We might never use any of these arcane, impossible words of German, Hebrew, Greek, French and even Unknown origin, but it’s nice to know that they would be in our most commonly consulted dictionaries if we needed them. And they weren’t.
Arvind and the other spellers are now in an unenviable club of people smarter than the programs we trust to run our lives. It’s like that episode of Seinfeld in which George gets a card in Trivial Pursuit that has a misprint, insisting that the Moops invaded Spain. His opponent is correct, but the card doesn’t know that.
We rely on the devices we type on and the programs we type in to know what we mean and to correct us. But it turns out they don’t know half of what we mean. Watching a spelling bee, you realize that there are so many words for things that we wish there were words for that it’s mind-boggling.
So thank heaven for the National Spelling Bee. It’s a triumph of the human memory over the hive mind. Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, thought the mind was the safest place to carry words you cared about. At the National Spelling Bee, it looks like he’s right.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.