KAUDER NALEBUFF: The spell-check revolution

The Greeks had a foolproof method for catalyzing change. If the crops were looking fallow or you were just anxious about marrying off your ugliest daughter, all you had to do was sacrifice a goat. I share many values with the Greeks, including faith that we have a small hand in shaping our fates and an appreciation for yogurt, so allow me to be a sacrificial animal for you all and, hopefully, the greater good.

As a senior, I’ve now read many of the things I’m supposed to have read. I can ride a unicycle and talk about Chaucer and play “Hallelujah” on the ukulele. There are times I almost feel like a Renaissance woman. But then I remind myself I can’t spell renaissance. And then I remember I can’t spell anything, and my self-satisfaction is immediately replaced by a sinking sense of shame.

A sample of words I’ve recently looked up: ambassador (since embassy starts with a freakin’ “e”), apocalypse, parallel (is it parralel? or paralel?), exacerbate, cemetery (because we say cemetary!), Strebeigh (Streighbeigh? Streibegh? What if I just called him Fred?) and the list goes on.

I think back to spelling tests in Mrs. Totman’s third grade class with a heavy heart. I never got anything less than 5/5. I could spell “friend” like it was “cat,” and Mrs. Totman was certain I was destined for great spelling success. So how could I have fallen so far?

Was it that I started writing on computers in high school? Is it the iPhone in my pocket that searches words so easily that it all fails to make an imprint? Or is it that Google will always tell me what I meant to search and those cute red squiggles will always be there to lovingly nestle my mistakes and keep them our little secret?

In my three years at Yale, I’ve only had to write by hand a few times. I understand that the fact that no one needs to know how to spell anymore should be a cause for celebration: Our brains now have so much extra room to store more useful information than the infuriatingly arbitrary order of a bunch of letters.

And yet I cannot help but worry, in my apocalyptic dreams, that Strebeigh would want to bury me in a cemetery of bad English majors if he only knew the truth. I’m afraid that as the little moments in our lives grow more convenient, most technology only exacerbates our bigger concerns. We’ve saved time and helped our backs and trees by not carrying around Webster’s wherever we go, but we’ve lost more than we bargained for.

I am obsessed with nuances, etymologies and surprising applications of words, and not being able to spell them makes me feel like I’ll never really get to know any of the words I treasure. When I realized recently that deodarant was spelled deodorant because it contains the word odor, my relationship with the word suddenly felt unshakeable! But not being able to spell is like loving someone whose name you can’t remember. It’s so deeply shameful.

Maybe someday in the future, when even famous writers can’t spell and we have no cultural memory of what it was like to write by hand, no one will share my humiliation. But for now, as a lover of words, I lose some dignity with every wayward letter.

I had a debate with a friend recently about whether our generation will ever get sick enough of staring at screens all day to start an anti-digital revolution where we all shut down our Facebook and email accounts for good. I can’t imagine this will ever happen. I do have hope, however, in a much less ambitious revolution — one so miniscule and un-radical that it’s almost embarrassing. But I’m going to propose it anyway:

What if … we all just wrote more by hand? I’m not saying stop writing emails or using Microsoft Word. I’m just giving you another reason to keep the journal you’ve always struggled to justify or to write that letter to an old friend. And why not write every first draft with a pencil? You’d avoid the distractions of the Internet and rid yourself of the spell-check crutch.

This year, I invite you to join me in my anachronistic attempt to wield a pen more often. Find me anytime and we’ll compare notes. I’ll be the one in Sterling at midnight, nursing a hand cramp and either feigning independence or asking the sorry person sitting next to me whether “i” really does always come before “e.”

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff is a senior in Silliman College. Contact her at rachel.kaudernalebuff@yale.edu.


  • The Anti-Yale

    Have you read “The Alphabet and the Goddess”? Sequential symbols (and that’s what spelling is) are responsible for the destruction of female governance in the family and in society, and for the elevation of the logial,syllogistic, left brain over the non-sequential, symbolic, right brain.

    Spell-check, in rotting your left brain, may be doing women a favor, by restoring the goddess.


  • streever

    PK, are you saying that it is not feminine to spell well, or that women are biologically unable to be logical? Is this somehow a way in which you compliment women? :/

  • The Anti-Yale

    You gotta read the book (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess) . The thesis is way tooo complicated for this humble reader to summarize. See below.



    In this groundbreaking book, Leonard Shlain, author of the bestselling Art & Physics, proposes that the process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture. Making remarkable connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion, Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one. This shift upset the balance between men and women initiating the disappearance of goddesses, the abhorrence of images, and, in literacy’s early stages, the decline of women’s political status. Patriarchy and misogyny followed.

  • TheFriendlyGod

    Admittedly only going by the description of the book on the website, not having read it, but the whole “feminine right brain, masculine left brain” generalization applied thusly to a vast array of historical changes sounds like gendered malarkey to me.

    On another note–do you think there’s an equivalency to be drawn between a writer who can’t spell well and a mathematician who is bad at basic arithmetic?

  • The Anti-Yale

    READ forgodsake!

    It may be malarkey (what ISN”T these days?) but it is charming malarkey.

    The read is the reward.

    You define Scott Fitzgerald and Einstein in your question.

    Winston Churchill, did poorly in school and had a lisp—the greatest orator of the 20th century.

    READ damn it, READ !


  • The Anti-Yale


    “damn it” was a little harsh. Sorry.