When Misspelling Compromises Our National Security

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what we can find. Recently, I learned from author Piper Bayard what words might trigger the Department of Homeland Security to monitor our social media.

After reading such unusual choices as “cloud” and “delays,” I decided to click over to the original source Piper had listed. The DHS Security Analyst’s Desktop Binder includes terms one should watch out for, sorted by category. The categories include Domestic Security, HAZMAT & Nuclear, and Terrorism.

But one of them is Weather/Disaster/Emergency. And reading the list, I found a slight problem:

DHS words list

On one hand, no big deal. Plenty of people misspell lightning (no e).

However, I began to wonder: Is our national security compromised somehow by a spelling error? Might we mistakenly declare a disastrous weather event if perhaps several people start tweeting about how their lamps are effectively lightening their rooms? Could catastrophe occur because a DHS security analyst is spending his time searching for the term lightening and completely missing a slew of lightning that could cause real damage?

Okay, fine. I’m a little OCD on stuff like this.

But it did perplex me that the people who managed to spell such things as “National Biosurveillance Integration Center” and “Viral Hemorrhagic Fever” managed to get lightning wrong.

But that’s the way it goes. There are errors so commonly made that it’s hard to even see them or worry about them. I swear that I misspell perseverance 99 out of 100 times that I type it.

So my suggestion is that with such tricky words, we simply double-check. One certainly doesn’t want our national security compromised due to a spelling error! Of course, I doubt that you’ve got so much riding on your spelling. But hey, maybe you do! Who am I to say?!

Here are a few commonly confused words to look out for:

Affect (to influence; to change) vs. effect (the result of a change)

Complement (to complete or enhance) vs. compliment (an expression of esteem or affection)

Defuse (to make less harmful or tense) vs. diffuse (to spread out)

Desert (arid land with sparse vegetation) vs. dessert (dish usually served at the end of a meal)

Pour (to cause to flow in a stream) vs. pore (to read or study attentively)

Principal (most important or consequential) vs. principle (fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption)

Lightening (making clearer or lighter) vs. lightning (flash of light from discharge of atmospheric electricity)

Stationary (immobile, static) vs. stationery (materials for writing or typing)

What words do you struggle to spell correct? Or get confused with another word? Do you think our national security has been compromised by a spelling error?

A Lesson with Miss Spelling

Ready, class?

Some time ago, my blog was visited by the well-known language arts teacher, Miss Pronunciation. She helped to clarify proper articulation of commonly mispronounced words, such as library and et cetera. I was recently contacted by her colleague, Miss Spelling, who wanted her turn on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, to correct commonly misspelled words in the English language. Today I am happy to oblige. The floor is now yours, Miss Spelling.

February. Having read Ms. Glover’s lovely post on the origins of the names of the months, I know that February derives from the Roman festival of Februata. However, it is rather challenging to get that first r into the pronunciation, and before you know it, you’re writing “Febuary.”

Whether you are an Aquarius, a Pisces, or another zodiac sign with no relation to this month, it is important to learn this spelling. You might someday have an important event in the month of February — like a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, or the apocalypse. Be ready to mark your calendar with the correct spelling. Example: “End of the World, February 16, 2031.”

Cemetery. The final e in this word has come to be pronounced by many with an a sound, thus causing us to incorrectly spell the word “cemetary.”

No, no, my friends. No self-respecting paranormal creature would settle for such nonsense. You will find your vampires, zombies, and ghosts in a cemetery. Remember, they may be dead, but good spelling isn’t!

Lightning. For heaven’s sake, do not tell me about bolts of “lightening”! There is no such thing. If you wish to lighten an area, turn on a lamp. However, if you are watching flashes of electricity trail across the sky, remember that it is “lightning” — two syllables, no e.

Thus, the Olympian Percy Jackson’s first quest is for The Lightning Thief. If instead he had chased the lightening thief, Percy might have merely found a poor schmuck who stole someone’s Yankee candle to add a little ambiance to a dark room.

Pic from http://www.ritzyreaders.com

Pastime. Doesn’t it seem that the two words “past” and “time” would make the compound word “pasttime”? For reasons I cannot explain, the t is simply unnecessary here. One t gets the job done. If anyone feels so inclined, they can make it their pastime to figure out why we dropped the additional t.

As for me, my pastimes include correcting such misspellings and shopping for various colored reading glasses to coordinate with my cheery wardrobe.

Privilege. Some wish to make this “priviledge.” Perhaps they believe that there is some “edge” to being privileged. I suppose there is. However, recent personal disasters of the rich and famous (Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian, Demi Moore) do make one wonder how much privilege one wants. Silver spoons and celebrity status aside, your command of the English language will help you to hob-nob with grace among the academically and socially privileged class. If only you could get the privilege of being invited to a party where said hob-nobbers will be.

Shepherd. How often you even use this word may depend on your proximity to goats and sheep. How often you write this word depends on . . . well, I don’t know. Yet I have written this word several times in my life, and often with prolonged head-scratching as to how to do so. It is not “shepard,” “shephard,” “shepperd,” or one of the other variations I have seen. Take “sheep” and “herd”; stick them together; remove the first e; done.

Now sheep are rather doltish creatures who wouldn’t know whether you could correctly spell “baa.” They are happy to have nurturing shepherds of any spelling ability. Yet, this shepherd, my friends, is leading any willing sheep into the fold of proper language.

Pic from http://www.partyamerica.com

Surprise. This is another case of saying a word improperly which leads to writing it incorrectly. Thus, too many have tried to spell “suprise.” Two r’s, please. If you throw a party and your invitations say “Suprise Party,” you will be surprised by how many invitees shake their heads with pity at your poor spelling.

Admittedly, if you add the words “open bar” to the invitation, you may still have a rather nice showing at your soiree. While we’re at it, make sure you serve “hors d’oeuvre,” not “orderves.” And no surprises there, please. All appetizers should be reasonably identifiable on sight. Asking your guests to nibble on pig’s eyes pate is bad form of another sort.

Every single word that ends with -ent or -ant. How many of you face words such as “dependent,” “redundant” or “malevolent” and find yourself asking a or e? You are not alone! This is tricky in English because there isn’t a simple rule like “a before e except after c.” It’s largely dependent on memorizing each word or writing it out and staring at the word to see if it looks familiar. Good luck!

Class dismissed.

Thanks for clarifying these problematic words in our English language, Miss Spelling. Of course, we all have our spelling weaknesses. For instance, I must rack my brain every time I spell “pharaoh” and “deodorant.” I can’t seem to memorize them once for all.

Miss Spelling would also like to remind everyone of the Spell Check function available in most computer software programs, including blogging sites. “Remember, students, Spell Check is your friend.”

Which words do you have trouble spelling? What other words do you see commonly misspelled?