Thursday 19 September 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Google has us all under its incorrect spell'

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"Keep spelling it how you say it" proclaims Google in a new two-page print ad. Stock photo: Reuters
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

This is a kolum about spelling. Or maybe it's a kolum about not spelling. At any rate, it's a kolum and that's actually exactly the same as a 'column' these days because, guess what? Spelling doesn't matter any more. Not even a bit.

And I no this (see?) becoz Google, instead of trying to add to the sum of human endeavour (which you might argue it might be better off doing but that is for another column), is now pretty much making a virtue of its contribution to global illiteracy in its latest ad campaign.

"Keep spelling it how you say it" proclaims Google in a new two-page print ad, adding an example of a search for "what to do in rakeavic" that duly produces - instantaneously - advice on walking tours and the like in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik.

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On your behalf, dear readers, I have done further investigation into this claim. I can thus confirm that a Google search for "pubs in edinberg" takes you straight to Scottish travel advice, that you can search for "restaurants in glosster" and get recommendations for Gloucester and check for the ingredients in "wuster sauce" to be redirected to a list for Worcestershire sauce (it contains barley malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract and onions, if you are interested).

It's not a foolproof formula, it should be said. My hometown of Cork is a good source of odd spellings and a search for "houses on karrigrawn strait" (the local name for the Carrigrohane road) gets Google thoroughly confused. So does "Yawl" (Youghal). And if you fancy a trip to China you get nowhere by searching for "Bay Jing".

And yet a hunt for "DunLeery" takes you directly to Dún Laoghaire, "Sin Jun" brings you to "St John". You can even type "leesh Ireland" and get to information about Laois.

It's not exactly news, of course, that - in the days of text-speak and emojis - spelling is in decline. It's simply gone out of favour, along with handwriting skills. Teachers, by and large, don't even take off marks for poor spelling any more. As someone who grew up in an era where good spellers (and I was one, to my own delight) were trumpeted as heroes in the classroom, this boggles the mind.

It all makes me a little sad, and keeps me glued wistfully to the kind of TV documentaries that feature eight-year-olds who confidently spell out words like Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13 and, yes, I had to Google it). My own teenage offspring and I have regular rows about this, as she brushes off my pleas for her to enter spelling bees and counters my insistence that spelling accuracy is important with a Gallic shrug and a "nobody cares as long as everyone knows what you are talking about!"

Perhaps the only sensible solution is to concede she has a point. Maybe my perpetual outrage at examples of poor spelling on menus, in books and in print media says more about my own outdated notions of superiority than anything else.

The teen is from a generation that uses a dictionary only if a teacher insists upon it - otherwise she looks straight to Google for information - on just about everything. As do we all, in fairness. And as we've seen above, Google doesn't make you learn to spell. And there is, it must be said, more to life than spelling. Modern teens are as likely to spend their English classes learning how to make oral presentations - something that was largely absent from my schooling and which is a genuinely vital skill.

Perhaps we can console ourselves by recalling that bad spelling is nothing new. Jane Austen, for instance, was a legendarily erratic speller. Studies of her original manuscripts have found her prose was littered with errors and bad punctuation. F Scott Fitzgerald was such a bad speller he couldn't remember how to spell the name of his friend Ernest Hemingway (he called him "Earnest Hemminway"). Agatha Christie couldn't spell either. It did none of them any harm.

Irish Independent

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