If you think spelling is hard now …

Because the National Spelling Bee took place this week, Google Trends promoted this map:

Notice that Wisconsin is the only state that, according to Google Trends, has the biggest problem spelling its own name. People (Hawaii’s most queried word) have been making fun of Wisconsin for that reason, but I think that is less appalling than those in Oregon lacking the sense to know how “sense” is spelled, Are people in Rhode Island lying when they claim they can’t spell “liar”?

As an alleged spelling expert, I find this to be a stereotype-breaking map, Most people probably think North Carolina is in the Bible Belt, so why would “angel” be difficult to spell? Is Mississippi so poor that its residents don’t know what a “nanny” is, or West Virginia and Connecticut so unfamiliar with Disney works that neither state’s residents can spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? (I’m sure you’ll agree that that is something quite atrocious.) Of course, as a former spelling bee contestant I can say that “Wisconsin” would never come up in a spelling bee, because proper nouns are not included in spelling bees.

One reason for Wisconsin’s difficulties with “Wisconsin” may have to do with what the always-accurate Wikipedia reports:

The word Wisconsin originates from the name given to the Wisconsin River by one of the Algonquian-speaking Native American groups living in the region at the time of European contact. French explorer Jacques Marquette was the first European to reach the Wisconsin River, arriving in 1673 and calling the river Meskousing in his journal. Subsequent French writers changed the spelling from Meskousing to Ouisconsin, and over time this became the name for both the Wisconsin River and the surrounding lands. English speakers anglicized the spelling from Ouisconsin to Wisconsin when they began to arrive in large numbers during the early 19th century. The legislature of Wisconsin Territory made the current spelling official in 1845.

The Algonquin word for Wisconsin and its original meaning have both grown obscure. Interpretations vary, but most implicate the river and the red sandstone that lines its banks. One leading theory holds that the name originated from the Miami word Meskonsing, meaning “it lies red”, a reference to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Wisconsin Dells. Other theories include claims that the name originated from one of a variety of Ojibwa words meaning “red stone place”, “where the waters gather”, or “great rock”.

So “Wisconsin” is a combination of Miami, Algonquin or Ojibwa and French, going from “Meskonsing” or “Meskousing” to “Ouisconsin” to “Wisconsin.” “Oui” means “yes” in French, for what it’s worth. Clear as mud (or “clair comme de la boue” en français), but the red references might explain the decision of the University of Wisconsin to adopt red (to be precise cardinal, as you know) as its color.

The more annoying issue that we residents of Red Water Rock (in order in French, “rouge,” “eau” and “roche”) face is national sports announcers’ inability to pronounce this state’s name correctly. Badger fans who didn’t get to Pasadena certainly enjoyed the 1994, 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowl wins, except for ABC-TV’s Bob Griese’s pronouncing “Wisconsin” with the accent on the first syllable instead of the second. (Griese is from Evansville, Ind., and played for Purdue. Some people argue that southern Indiana and southern Illinois are, or sound like they are, in the South, so perhaps that has something to do with it.)

If you think spelling in American English is difficult now, read Hannah Poindexter:

English has always been a living language, changing and evolving with use. But before our modern alphabet was established, the language used many more characters we’ve since removed from our 26-letter lineup. The six that most recently got axed are:

Eth (ð)

The y in ye actually comes from the letter eth, which slowly merged with y over time. In its purest form, eth was pronounced like the th sound in words like this, that or the. Linguistically, ye is meant to sound the same as the but the incorrect spelling and rampant mispronunciation live on.

Thorn (þ)

Thorn is in many ways the counterpart to eth. Thorn is also pronounced with a th sound, but it has a voiceless pronunciation — your vocal cords don’t vibrate when pronouncing the sound — like in thing or thought.

Today, the same th letter combo is used for both þ and ð sounds. There is a pronunciation difference — thorn is a voiceless pronunciation and eth is voiced — but that’s just something you pick up as you learn to speak. Of course, you’ll never hear about this in school, because that’s English for you.

Wynn (ƿ)

Wynn was incorporated into our alphabet to represent today’s w sound. Previously, scribes used two u characters next to each other, but preferred one character instead and chose wynn from the runic alphabet. The double u representation became quite popular and eventually edged wynn out. Ouch.

Yogh (ȝ)

Yogh was historically used to denote throaty sounds like those in Bach or the Scottish loch. As English evolved, yogh was quickly abandoned in favor of the gh combo. Today, the sound is fairly rare. Most often, the gh substitute is completely silent, as in though or daughter.

Ash (æ)

Ash is still a functional letter in languages like Icelandic and Danish. In its original Latin, it denoted a certain type of long vowel sound, like the i in fine. In Old English, it represented a short vowel sound — somewhere between a and e, like in cat. In modern English, æ is occasionally used stylistically, like in archæology or medæval, but denotes the same sound as the letter e.

Ethel (œ)

Ethel also once represented a specific pronunciation somewhere between the two vowels o and e, though it was originally pronounced like the oi in coil. Like many clarifying distinctions, this letter also disappeared in favor of a simpler vowel lineup (a, e, i, o, u) with many different pronunciations.



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