A couple of days ago, on Sunday, I spoke in my podcast about the lovely, serendipitous stay that my wife and I had in a gorgeous part of Somerset called Barrington. In the bookshop in Barrington Court (a stunning National Trust estate worth a visit), I picked up a secondhand copy of a book called Spellbound, The improbable story of English spelling, by one James Essinger. And if you clocked that particular episode of the podcast, I’d come out without any money. But the farmer whose land we were staying on — who happened to be behind me in the queue — kindly lent me the money to buy it. So I’ve been reading this wonderful book, Spellbound (an apt description of its effect on me) and it’s fascinating.
For me, it’s cemented the link between spelling and magic.
Let me say that again.
I believe that spelling and magic are linked. And I will — if you’ll excuse the pun — try and spell that out for you.
Tidings of great joy
We all know that spelling means writing a word with the letters in the right order. And obviously if you do that, you’ve spelled (spelt?) it correctly. And if you don’t, you’ve misspelled (misspelt?) it. Now the derivation, the origin, of ‘spell’ is the ancient Germanic word, spell, meaning ‘recital’ or ‘tale’. And when it entered Old English or Anglo-Saxon in about 500 AD, not surprisingly it gained the meaning of a narrated, spoken, oral story. Picture a bunch of bearded Saxons huddled around a fire deep in Epping Forest telling tales (some of them tall).
And this is the root of the word ‘gospel’, the teachings of Christ. Originally gōdspell in Anglo-Saxon, it meant ‘good story’ or ‘good news’. Obviously if you’re a Christian, you’d see the story of Christ as good news. But whatever your religion, you’re likely to agree that the Gospel (the first four Books of the New Testament) is the story of a good man who did good works.
The second meaning of ‘spell’
Of course ‘spell’ has another meaning, that of a magic spell, first recorded in 1579. A spell is a special set of words, formulae or verse possessing magical powers — usually found in a book called a ‘grimoire’ (think Hogwarts library) — able to confer magical powers on somebody or something. Once again, we’re back to spelling: if you mis-order the words of a spell, your magic may not work. Your wand will be just another old stick of hazel or willow. So spelling out your spell correctly matters.
But where might that come from, that second magical meaning?
Back to Christ, or to be precise, His birth.
I’m speculating here, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that one source of the word ‘magic’ is magus, specifically a member of the Persian priestly class of the 6th century BC, and, generally, priests or wise men.
And the three wise men (magi, plural of magus) who visited the infant Jesus at his birth were either priests or astrologers, hence they were able to navigate their way to Bethlehem by the stars (and then able to go home by a different route to avoid King Herod). After all, you wouldn’t invite any Tom, Dick or Harry to such an auspicious event, would you?
Picture the scene: you’re a Sumerian slave
Imagine being an illiterate worker in Sumeria or Babylon or the Holy Land, and a man in a long, purple robe who can write, spell and speak well tells you that in precisely four days he will make the moon blot out the sun (an eclipse). You pooh-pooh it, but when it happens, you fall to your knees in awe at this ‘magician’. He’s just a clever man who knows his astrology. So the jump from wisdom to magic is a tiny one.
Leaving aside the astrological aspect, thousands of years ago the sheer ability to write and spell properly, to record important events, like the birth of a royal heir, to make people do things through the written word, would have wowed the average person. He or she (they) would have regarded them as possessing special, supernatural, quasi-divine powers; I know I would have.
There are stories in the Middle Ages of people pouring water on the illuminated manuscript of a Bible and drinking the inky liquid to (literally) imbibe the word of God.
Picture that. The scribe would not have been pleased!
The next link: spelling, magic and song
As James Essinger says in his book Spellbound, when we have a spell cast on us, we are charmed — as in a snake charmer; we are fascinated. We are thrown into a trance, entranced, which links to the idea of enchantment, from chanting (French, chanter, to sing). Chanting is rhythmic, incantatory sound that can charm and spellbind us. Likewise, when we’re in the presence of a charismatic person, we can be captivated, deprived of our free will or volition. Charmed into submission (or seduction).
And that brings us to another aspect of spelling: the concept of rhythm. Poetic or musical rhythm relies on the words or the sounds being in the right order, as in spelling a word correctly. It’s the precise order that creates the harmony and conjures an effect upon us. Mess up the order of the spell, the song or the poem, and it doesn’t work.
Can you see how spelling, story, news, magic, rhythm and order all seem to be connected?
So, what does spelling mean for us as writers?
If the people we’re trying to influence with our words don’t know us personally — as in a bid, blog or brochure — we need to spell words correctly. There’s no excuse for spelling words wrong, especially when we have spell-check to hand. (Having said that, Shakespeare spelt his own name six different ways, so you may want to use that in your defence.)
The other thing I’d say about spelling — and I use that to mean placing things in the right order — is the idea of rhythm and arrangement. We need to be aware that, even when we’re writing prose, our writing can be rhythmic; it can flow, rise and fall. And one of the great ways, maybe the only way, of sussing out our rhythm is to read our writing out loud. (I devote a whole chapter to this in my book, rhetorica®).
Whatever you do, please read your writing out loud before you publish, share or send it.
As for arrangement, that’s about the structure of your document, ie what order you put the content in. But that’s another story, for another day.
Let’s leave spelling there for now. At first you may have thought that spelling was a relatively small aspect of writing. But I hope I’ve shown that, viewed differently, it’s a skylight on a much larger world. You might even call it magick.
Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, ‘The Writing Guy’, on https://anchor.fm/scott-keyser/.