Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lexical Laxity

When I was in grade 7, some kids did a little skit/presentation when a recycling program was introduced into our school. It was terribly corny, even by grade seven standards and was expectedly made fun of by at least one classmate. The teacher heard one of the students, and as punishment, he had to write out the definition of recycling a hundred times or something like that and hand it in the next. The next day, when he came to class, however, he did not have anything to hand in. Why not? He couldn't find a definition for it in the dictionary [1]. I was rather shocked by this. A word that I only learned of the day before is not in the dictionary? How could this be? The word did not seem that unusual, being composed of a common prefix and a familiar word. Thinking about it now, if I had put two and two together then, I would have realized that since they are doing a skit to introduce this new concept of recycling, then the word for that concept must itself be new. This was probably my first encounter with a word that wasn't in a currently available dictionary.

Fast forward to 2007. I recently installed the latest version of Firefox. When I did this, I was brought to a website telling me about a spell checker add-on. Since I do a lot of writing via Firefox (for example, this post), I thought it made a lot of sense to me, especially considering my weakness with spelling (see, I keep trying to apply the spelling rules that I learned in grade 1, to my disadvantage) [2]. Now when I'm typing stuff for the internet, there is a word that comes up quite a lot that the spell checker add-on identifies as an incorrect spelling. The word? internet. [3]

[1] The student was not let off by this technicality. As a class, we came up with our own definition for him to write out. (Take that Oxford!)

[2] Being a math student, you would figure that I would know how to spell the word amount. However, for the longest time, I wanted to spell it with two m's, since the m is preceded by a short vowel. A friend then told me a little trick. Think about it this way... he said. It worked. But when I tried to apply the trick to the word account, I misspelled the word. I now conclude that his little trick actually has nothing to do with my ability to spell the word properly, even if the event of being told did. Now, having learned the proper spelling of account, I tried to spell the word recommend, but, by analogy with account, I used two c's instead of one resulting in an incorrect spelling (which in turn resulted in an insult by a friend, as if to imply that I was somehow being illogical and stupid. The only illogic and stupidity that I can be accused of is trying to be logical and smart, and not just looking up the stupid word in the dictionary). So basically it comes back to that old fact that the exception is the rule in English. Or, as Brian Regan so elegantly puts it "I before e except after c, or when sounding like ay as in neighbor or weigh, and on weekends, and holidays, and all throughout May, and you'll always be wrong, no matter what you say!"

[3] To be fair to the spell checker, it does recognize the capitalized version. There is some debate as to whether it should be capitalized or not. Apparently, it has something to do with it being a proper name. The Randy disagrees.

So maybe this lets the creators off the hook. When it lists suggestions for correct spellings, however, the capitalized version of the word is not an option. This to me seems like a basic feature of a spell checker, and I'm surprised that they overlooked it. The free software that they have designed for me is clearly inferior, and I am ungrateful.

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