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:
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.