Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
RED PEN: Bees spell trouble for those who police words
BY LAURA MOYER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
THE ANNUAL Scripps National Spelling Bee fills copy editors with dread.
It’s not that we don’t like spelling. Most copy editors love spelling, and many have their own fond memories of participating in childhood bees.
It’s that spelling bee stories are jinxed.
Consider our 2007 coverage of two-time local champ Carolyn Lindsey. In a story about how Carolyn prepared for her second trip to the national bee, the reporter wrote:
“Carolyn pondered the spelling of ‘glossolaia,’ a noun that means speaking in tongues as part of a religious experience.”
The next day, The Free Lance–Star published this correction:
“The word ‘glossolalia’ was misspelled in an article yesterday about the national spelling bee. Here’s hoping local contestant Carolyn Lindsey fares better than we would have.”
Ha! Ha! Funny, right?
Just so you know, the word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune is spelled S-C-H-A-D-E-N-F-R-E-U-D-E.
Spelling bee stories are jinxed not just because the words these bright youngsters spell onstage are so difficult.
They’re jinxed because they magnetically attract every editing problem that can crop up in a regular news story—the typo, the misidentification, the repeated word, the punctuation gaffe, the garbled sentence.
I was on duty one night last week as we prepared our coverage of Drew Marino’s performance at the National Spelling Bee. Drew is the Fauquier County teenager who represented our region at this year’s nationals. He acquitted himself well onstage by correctly spelling “asthmogenic” and “virgule.” Alas, he didn’t advance to the later rounds.
Before it got to me, the story had already been self-edited by the reporter, Katie Thisdell, and edited again by night editor Bill Tolbert, who then wrote the headlines. Photographer Bob Martin had written cutlines, photo chief Dave Ellis had looked them over, and Bill T. had edited them as well.
Now it was my turn. I took a deep breath. Drank some water. Said a little prayer. Then I read the story and all its associated elements once for meaning, once for fine points and once more in an out-loud whisper.
I caught a few of the typical problems that can crop up when so many people are involved in producing meaningful words and photos on deadline. The word “spelled” was spelled “spelld.” The contestant’s last name, Marino, popped up in one place as “Merino.” A definition needed tweaking.
When I felt I could do no more, I released the story to its fate.
The page proof arrived, and here was the deck headline:
13-YEAR-OLD SPELLS TWO WORDS CORRECTLY BUT DOESN’T ADVANCE TO TELEVISED ROUNDSQ
ROUNDSQ? Where the heck did that Q come from? Where could it have come from?
Oh, no, I bet it came from me!
I red-penned it out and then just sat there for a second, letting my heart rate return to normal. Then I read everything over one last time.
If there was a mistake in the story we published, my co-workers wisely shielded me from that knowledge. No readers have written or called.
Really, though, if there had been a mistake I would rather have received a tsk–tsking phone call than read a letter to the editor like this one, which we published after we ran afoul of the spelling bee jinx in 2009:
“Congratulations to Basim Abielmona for finishing round 2 of the Scripps National Spelling Bee! That is quite an accomplishment.
“However, I had to laugh because on the back page of The Free Lance–Star where the story continues, there is a shaded box with a quote that has the word ‘learned’ misspelled.
“I bet Basim Abielmona would have caught that error!”
And I bet he, too, can spell “schadenfreude.”
Laura Moyer of The Free Lance–Star is a lifelong compulsive copy editor. A version of this column appeared in her Red Pen blog on fredericksburg.com. You can reach her at 540/374-5417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.