Tag Archives: Spelling

Twice-Baked Bread and Half-Baked Thoughts

zwieback

zwieback toast

zwieback
noun zwie·back \ˈswē-ˌbak, ˈswī-, ˈzwē-, ˈzwī-, -ˌbäk\
: a dry, hard bread that is eaten especially by young children

I lost the Third Annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee held at the Kellogg Hubbard Library.

Lost early on. The kind of early on that is a tad embarrassing, with tad here meaning “a whole lot.”

Judging from many of the subsequent words, if not early on I would have lost later on. The competition was humbling and props to Robbie Harold who won it. Won it again, I should add. It was amazing hearing her and the other spellers spell, often doing so rapidly and with mind-blowing certainty.

My particular losing word — zwieback — was a word I had never heard before and my misspelling of it revealed that ignorance to the audience. But it also revealed some interesting ways my brain works; though not to the audience, of course, who, being outside of me, could only see its dismal output accompanying a somewhat gormless expression.

My thoughts started with crackers.

Word-Pronouncer Sydney Lea included crackers in his definition of the word. He said a lot of other descriptive words, mentioning them being inedible and how he remembered his grandmother always had them around.

He likely mentioned bread, too, but, after briefly and tangentially thinking of my maternal grandparents, candy orange slices and other weird candies that only seemed to be present at their house and always in little glass dishes,  I zeroed in on crackers.

My mind started sifting through different crackers sold at Shaw’s; specifically, the ones loosely collected in my head under the category “crackers with weird names.” Matzo and wasi came most immediately to mind, along with Melba toast, which sound nothing like zwieback, but still…

Although zwieback didn’t sound familiar, perhaps I had at least glanced at them while stocking items in its shelf vicinity. No matter that for Wasi I should have been thinking Wasa; I could picture the three kinds – multi-grain, sourdough, and light rye – on the shelf and tried to see other neighboring crackers.

But instead Wasi encouraged wasabi to hijack my thinking, tossing me over to a different aisle. Wasabi is a real word, but it is a plant and has nothing to do with crackers. Though wasabi peas are stocked in the oriental foods section, where KA-ME offers three kinds of rice crackers, which are called… er, rice crackers.

No help there…

Abandoning this path, I tried to focus on the sound of the word, hoping to make a good guess. But zwī is not a common sound in English and I couldn’t think of what letters plopped together could create it. The closest I came to the sound was zī as in Zygote, which I knew wasn’t right even as I spelled zwieback Z-Y-B-A-C-K.

Ironically, in a too-late-to-be-of-use fashion, as soon as Sydney started spelling it correctly, Z – W –, my mind partially blocked him out and went “Oh, yeah, duh” recalling my rudimentary college German and proceeding to unhelpfully count in German:

Eins
Zwei
Drei
Vier…

Where the German word for two has both the sound and spelling I had needed. Or so I had thought until I started writing this post and research showed the correct word has I before E, following the infamous except before c English Language rule. So even if I had remembered my German, I would have likely gotten it wrong, catching the beginning zw and messing up the subsequent ie by following Zwei.

Though to be fair, a Google search shows quite a few people mistakenly spelling it zweiback. A mistake perhaps compounded by the word, meaning literally twice-baked, coming from the German word for two, zwei.

On the other hand, one source says zwie is a variant of zwei. Another source even claims the word zwieback comes originally from German zweiback. I cannot yet locate an authoritative source on its true etymology.

But in contemporary usage – eg. Nabisco and Amazon.de, it is I before E.

Still, the pronunciation can be either a long I or a long E sound, adding to the trickiness, with the latter sound appearing in rule-breaking words like seize. Then again, maybe it isn’t so rule-breaking after all; soft C and S sound alike, so I before E, except after a (soft) C sound.

Neither ie nor ei follows C when it is hard, which means when C sounds like K not S.

Kome to think of it, why do we even have a C in our language? Kouldn’t we rely on K’s and S’s?

For CH’s, maybe? If so, why not have it simply – and always — be that sound and dispense with needing the H with it? We could even redesign the letter altogether and call it see-aytch in homage to ß.

Maybe we keep it as is just so we can have the I before E except after C rule.

Though that would be weird.

Ninth Place

I ended up in ninth place at the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee on Saturday.

I know this because my husband diligently kept track. I must admit such knowledge made me feel pretty darn good about my performance. Maybe not as good as winning would have, but with my bar set on the floor at “please don’t let me be the first one out,” the losing felt like a win.

Still, I lost on a stupid word.

Pomegranate.

Well, to be fair, I reckon the word itself isn’t stupid. I love language far too much to slander any contribution to it, even rather bizarre new entries like twerk or old ones from my generation like tubular.

But still, from a thinking about thinking viewpoint, the misspelling possessed a couple of levels of most curious mental freezing.

The first was with the word itself. Although I occasionally get paid for writing, it’s not yet been the kind of paid that extinguishes the necessity of having to eke out a living by doing all sorts of non-writing things. One of my current such eke’s is stocking groceries, which includes handling a yogurt with the aforementioned fruit on the bottom.

I must have seen that word hundreds upon hundreds of times, yet I couldn’t spell it when called upon to do so.

The second was with what I actually did spell.

I spelled the last part g-r-a-n-i-t-e. Which may have been influenced by us now living in Vermont, but still…  even as I spelled it that way I knew it was wrong; I just couldn’t think of the right way. Yet, where did this feeling of wrong come from, if I ostensibly did not know the right way of spelling for such a comparison to be made?

A reasonable answer would be that it was not a case of merely not knowing, but more a case of not being able to bring that knowing up to the conscious level. It might seem here that the shorter sentence of I couldn’t recall would suffice and mean roughly the same thing as my more verbose sentence with all its nots.

But it doesn’t and doesn’t.

For recall makes it sound like the conscious part is the only part involved in thinking; like we reach into our bag of memories and mental whatnots, and once we do, once we make the retrieval, that is where thought happens.

But thinking is what our brain — our entire brain — does, 24/7. We are thinking whether or not we think we are thinking. Sometimes, though, all those thinking parts aren’t always the best at communicating with one another.

So the part that thought about granite, compared it to its no doubt knowledge of the correct spelling of pomegranate, and finally advised, nope, that’s not right, failed to take that extra step and provide the correct spelling to what we typically refer to as consciousness.

Although frustrating at times, subconscious thinking is one of the things that makes writing so fun for me. Even when I plan, I never know for sure what will come out; what the unconscious parts of me will think is important enough to nudge me in that creative direction.

For instance, when I started this blog entry, I thought I intended to write about the weirdness of how things are spelled and pronounced in English, hoping to have an excuse to use The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough by Dr. Seuss in such a discussion.

Or at least use the word gallimaufry, which is a neat word that I had never heard before and the person sitting next to me spelled correctly. She knew it as the title of a book on obscure words she had recently received. It means a confused jumble or medley of things.

But all’s well that thinks well and I included both anyway, appearances of gallimaufry notwithstanding.