On March 27, I participated in an adult spelling bee at the Bluffton Public Library. Done with an emphasis on fun, we were invited to “Geek the Library,” which the participants did with great enthusiasm. Two of us wore antennae, one brought his junior high spelling bee trophy, and the winner wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the admonishment “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

I was thrilled to discover my neighbor Gail was there with expressed interest of competing with me. It was time for a little trash talking! In the end, Gail bested me in a spelldown for second place.

Am I a good speller? Since my work as a writer and editor is typically done with spell check on, I really don’t rely on my own knowledge and memory that often. I write using both Mac Pages, which doesn’t autocorrect, and Microsoft Word, which does. I’m certainly a visual speller and found myself closing my eyes to “see” the words as I said the letters.

Little Town on the Prairie.
First edition, 1941.

So was this spelling bee just a nostalgia trip? Does it matter if you can spell unassisted? I don’t like the idea that I’m losing mental skills because technology can do it for me. But I realize that my interest in spelling comes from my interest in words. I certainly pick up a calculator with fewer guilty feelings.

I’m reminded of two scenes in Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In one chapter Pa Ingalls “spells down” the whole town in a spelling bee. Later in the book, Laura is tested in mental arithmetic: “Divide 347,264 by 16.” Without paper and pencil? The details are fictionalized, but the scene reveals how our educational methods and mental skills are changing.

So does spelling matter? I certainly think it’s an important part of effective communication and that being careless about spelling is unprofessional. However, I’m not indignant when I see spelling errors in casual communication. Some people spell better than others, some folks do math better than others, etc., etc.

It was great fun joining with other spellers at the library, and I hope the spelling bee will become an annual event at the Bluffton Public Library. Like Pa Ingalls, I think it’s a nerdy-cool way to get folks excited about words, learning, and communication. Yes, I geek spelling!

P.S. Are you a fellow “Little House” fan? Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original memoir, Pioneer Girl, has finally been published. Read about it in The Guardian. The reviewer notes that it includes spelling mistakes!