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Spelling: as easy as ABC?

Spelling.  It’s a great leveller. The most academically decorated can find it difficult, and someone without a single formal qualification can find it as easy as, well, as easy as ABC.  If you are lucky enough to be in the latter category, it can be bewildering to encounter others who are not equally as adept and who find it an almost constant struggle.

What do you mean you don’t know how to spell floccinaucinihilipilification?

Facetious, perhaps, but one of the things about spelling is that it is very much an individual thing.  A quick straw poll of my friends threw up completely different words that they either have difficulty with, or know are difficult to spell, and therefore take a little more time over. For example, I always stumble over intrigue: I don’t know why, but I seem incapable of getting it right first time – thank goodness for dictionaries and spellcheckers! ‘Occurring’ is another – it just doesn’t look right to me. But it is: two c’s, and two r’s.

The usual suspects

Here at Oxford Dictionaries, we have researched those words which people have most trouble with and the results are probably not very surprising – there are bound to be a few words here which most people would recognise as being more difficult to spell.  Accommodation is one which caused me some problems, at least for a short while. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to spell it – rather it was that once I found out it was held to be a ‘difficult to spell’ word, I assumed that I must be spelling it wrong. Luckily I soon realised that this wasn’t the case and normal service was resumed.

Lists of this kind are often compiled, and will often feature the same words. Some others which feature on such lists typically include embarrass, February, restaurant, vacuum, independent, diarrhoea, and disappear, to name only a few.

Bring me a mnemonic

One of the best ways to remember the spellings of difficult words is to employ a mnemonic –  ironically not the easiest word in the world to spell. It works on the idea of association to help you remember something – an aide-memoire. Although not confined to spelling this technique lends itself well to the trickeries and vagaries of orthography.  New ones can be invented to suit the needs and tastes of the individual. One of my favourites is for the word liaise: ‘Leave It Alone Ian, Said Elizabeth’. Sadly I cannot lay claim to its invention. I first heard it from the broadcaster Sue Perkins some years ago, and now, whenever I write or type the word, I say the mnemonic out  loud, and of course, never suffer the embarrassment of spelling it wrong (only the embarrassment of being caught talking to myself…).

Put your money where your mouth is

Which brings me to the interactive Spelling Challenge which has recently been added to Oxford Dictionaries Online.  It gives you the chance to see just how good your spelling really is, with a range of words categorized variously as tricky, fiendish, and difficult, in both British and US English. The problem is that lexicographers are generally expected to be excellent spellers, so  dare I take the challenge? What if I don’t get full marks? Will this bring the dictionary to a halt?!

No, of course not. Come on, I sternly tell myself. You can do this. You are an excellent speller – now is the time prove it.

Maybe I will just start with the easiest level …