I took this photo outside my local copy shop last week. Right at the top of the sign is one of the products which the business supplies: calenders. Now these guys are in the printing business so they know about proofreading, spellchecking, and so on – yet they still couldn’t get the spelling right. But it struck me that maybe 95% of people passing the sign wouldn’t notice the misspelling, whereas 100% of people passing would know what the sign was advertising. Which raises the question: does it matter how it’s spelled, as long as there is no misunderstanding?
Humans are good at resolving ambiguities in language. Most words have more than one meaning, so even a short sentence like Her heart was beating fast is – theoretically – open to multiple interpretations, since heart, beat, and fast all have several meanings. But in practice (assuming speakers are fluent) we almost always understand one another, and there is no need to qualify an utterance like I’m going the bank by adding and by the way, I mean the financial institution, not the side of the river.
Could the same apply to spelling? If we understand the intended message, does it matter if the spelling is ‘wrong’? When Dr. Johnson was planning his great dictionary in the mid-18th century, he saw part of his job as regularizing the spelling of English words. He described English orthography as ‘unsettled and fortuitous’, observing that ‘there is still great uncertainty among the best criticks’. Shakespeare’s name, in his own lifetime, was spelled in several different ways, including Shakespere, Shakspeare, and Shakspere, and this doesn’t seem to have been a cause for concern at the time.
Gradually, the notion emerged that there was one ‘correct’ spelling for every word, and dictionaries have helped to establish norms in this area as much as in areas like meaning and pronunciation. But perhaps things are now coming full circle: as more and more people become ‘published’ writers (through their blogs, tweets, or Facebook pages), we’re seeing greater variability in the way words are spelled. The constraints of text messaging, and the ingenious abbreviations this has spawned, have influenced this process too.
As it happens, there is a noun calender, meaning a machine with rollers used for giving cloth or paper a glossy surface. So in the right context, the sentence We must get a new calender could mean exactly that. But this is too technical and infrequent a term to get into the Macmillan Dictionary. Interestingly, if you type calender into the dictionary, it asks you if you really meant calendar (and you almost certainly did). But if you do the same in a very large dictionary like Wordnik, you get taken to a definition for the rarer word. And if you then ask Wordnik for examples of calender, it turns out they are all really misspelled references to calendars! Confusion all round. Maybe there is something to be said for good spelling after all?