Friday, December 30, 2011

Spelling Demons: An Introduction to Memograms

The following is adapted from the book Memograms: Easy Anagrams of Hard-to-Spell Words:

noun, [ MEMOry + anaGRAM ] a trademarked term for an anagram or other mnemonic (memory-assisting) linguistic device that is configured in such a way as to help one remember the correct spelling of a particular word.

Example: the letters in the phrase cancel it lady rearrange to become the word accidentally.

Why did I create a book of Memograms? Because spelling checkers don’t work!

Well… O.K. they do some of the time.

Actually, they do most of the time, but when they don’t—or when you don’t have one available—it always seems to be at the worst, most frantic time of your day.

I know. I was in the middle of technical report once and had to call my secretary because I couldn’t remember how to spell “wrench.” And this was at a factory that I had helped run for over five years, including being in charge of all of the repairs! And I couldn’t spell “wrench” of all things? Nothing I tried looked right, so I finally had to call her and ask, and even when she set me straight I looked at the word and had my doubts.

This is what can happen. We’ve all had times like this. Does the word have an “A” or an “E”? Does it start with an “S” or a “C”? You know that it has one or the other; you’re just not sure which. But what if, somehow, you were positive that it had an “A” and not an “E” or you were certain that it began with an “S” and not a “C”? Then you could always spell it correctly. In fact, most of us can spell most of our words most of the time if we are just given a little assistance by knowing exactly how many of which letters are available to us, sort of like being given a handful of Scrabble letter tiles and knowing that the word that we are trying to spell is in there if we just use all of the letters. This is what my little book can help you with.

But don’t get me wrong. This book is not a collection of only my personal hard-to-spell words. These are often tough for just about everybody. When I started, I spent a lot of time asking numerous wordsmiths—editors and writers and webmasters—to tell me which words were real demons for them to spell. Everyone quickly chimed in with his or her own “favorites” (if that’s the term). I also added a few of my own that had been giving me problems for years (“wrench” was, thankfully, no longer among them).

Then I chose the ones that appeared most often, what I deemed to be the peskiest 120 of them, and here they are, each with an accompanying Memogram™ (a memory-helping anagram—a remix, if you will—of the word’s letters) along with a simple definition of the word and often with an accompanying (sometimes nonsensical) sentence or phrase to help jog your memory even more.

My personal problem word? “Dictionary.” I could never remember if it ended with “ary” or “ery.” But once I discovered that the Memogram for dictionary is “a dirty coin,” I’ve never gotten it wrong since.

You, too, undoubtedly have your own personal “spelling demons,” especially if you are a student still learning to write and use language effectively. I hope that at least a few of those demons are in my book, and that you finally find Memograms to help you with them. If not, send me an e-mail or post a comment here, and tell me what words drive you crazy. I’ll be listening. There will be a Memograms 2 I’m sure.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Words As Toys

I love words. I love how they sound. I love how they look on the printed page. I love their histories, where they came from, how and why they originated, how and why they’ve changed over the years.

But I’m a fussbudget about how they’re used. Don’t show me “flaunted” when you mean “flouted.” Don’t use “regime” when you mean “regimen.” And you had better spell them correctly. Don’t type t-o when you should type t-o-o. And if you say them out loud, you had better pronounce them correctly or don’t use them. If you insist on using them, if you insist on speaking them out loud, don’t be offended when someone corrects you. That someone is doing you a favor by trying to prevent you from appearing ignorant in the future.

But words can also be toys, not just tools. They can be fun to use, to play with, to enjoy. Probably the most common way that words are used as toys, where people get pleasure out of their existence and meaning and manipulation, is in crossword puzzles. The two most famous, worldwide, are the crosswords in the New York Times and the Times of London. There was a great program shown on PBS a few years ago, it’s now on DVD, called “Wordplay.” It was all about the New York Times crossword puzzles and the people who play them, including famous people like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart. If you are a crossword person at all, it’s worth checking out.

Anagrams are another use of words as toys. An anagram is where the individual letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to make a new word or phrase. You might call it an “alphabet remix.” An anagram can be as simple as the word “bat” being rearranged to form the word “tab” or the phrase “a dirty coin” being rearranged to form the word “dictionary.” It’s as if you took a bunch of alphabet blocks, where each block showed only one letter, and placed them on the table and rearranged them to make different words and phrases by using only the letters that you started with, no more and no less. They can get quite complex. Real anagram fanatics (and I’m not one of those, though I do like anagrams) will work at creating entire meaningful paragraphs that can be rearranged, using only those letters, into other perfectly meaningful paragraphs. Some of them are absolutely astounding in their complexity.

Poetry—rhyming poetry specifically—is another place where one can play with words. (But I think I’ll save poetry for a future post.)

I love words as toys, and I love words as tools. If you ever come across an unusual one (or you have a favorite) that you think would be fun to play with, please let me know. In the meantime, let’s all try harder to use our words correctly and have fun with them at the same time.