Category Archives: creative misspelling

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!



This solitary word appears in a margin of one page of my current (5-year span) gradebook. When I wrote it down, or what the context was, or even what course the writer was taking I cannot say. Most likely this is from a first-year student, since their writing topics tend toward social issues rather than literary criticism. But lacking a context of any kind, I can say nothing much about the writer’s intent.

Oh, certainly I knew she meant “hypocrisy,” and I sympathize with anyone who has trouble spelling that, since it seems so strange on the page. I used to look it up almost every time I had to write it, until I taught myself simply to make sure what I wrote “looked wrong”: that more or less guaranteed that I had made the correct spelling choices.

In fact, using various “ends-in” sites just now I have been able to find no other word that ends in -crisy, unless I count “acrisy,” offered by one site but not recognized by my friend Mr. Webster. No wonder “hypocrisy” looks so wrong.

On the other hand, asking for words ending in -crACy yields FIFTEEN words: to wit, “aristocracy autocracy bureaucracy democracy gerontocracy hierocracy meritocracy mobocracy monocracy ochlocracy pantisocracy plutocracy stratocracy technocracy theocracy.” And thus my joy in my student’s word…

…because we ALL know that the suffix “cracy” means “form or philosophy of government” or “rule by a particular group,” the group being defined by the root word. An aristocracy is a government by aristocrats. A bureaucracy is a government by bureaucrats. A democracy is government by the demos, or people, or by democrats, those who favor rule by the people. A theocracy is a government by gods or their representatives.

So a hypocracy must be a government by hypos…or by hypocrites, no? Although I guess we’d have to call them “hypocrats” in order to conform to the pattern of the other -cracies.

“Hypo”by itself means “under,” but I doubt that a hypocracy would be a government by underlings; it might be a government by people who are somehow undercover, though—concealing their true selves under some charade or façade. There’s a word for that:  “hypocrite,” which, as Webster says, is “one who affects virtues or qualities he does not have,” someone practicing hypocrisy— “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not, especially the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.”

Watching the antics during the maiden week of the 114th Congress of the United States, I can think of no better word for the philosophy of government they seem to be espousing than hypocracy.

See if this term comes in handy for you in your social and political discussions this year. I believe I will be using it a lot. Alas.

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge.”

Before I tell my current students about my blog, I have to share the newest addition to my collection.

When I read this sentence, I wondered what one needed to know about punctuality. Be there or be square; be there on time or be late. Was he going to talk about the techniques he knew for being on time, or lament that he knew no such techniques?

Or did he lack confidence in his ability to produce knowledge when required, such as on unannounced quizzes? Is he the type who thinks of the correct answer only after he’s handed in the paper, a phenomenon sort of like l’esprit de l’escalier?

No. What we have here is a fairly resourceful, if misleading, coinage, sort of a back formation. Here’s the rest:

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge. The daughnting task of placing commas and semicolons is a strategic one…”

Punctual and punctuation share the letter cluster “punct,” from punctus, which my old friend Webster’s says is the Latin past participle of pungere, to prick. (Pungent also comes from this root.) They part company with Latin’s evolution into Middle Latin.

Punctual comes from punctualisThe first definition Mr. W. gives for punctual is “relating to or having the nature of a point.” Follows: “being to the point: pointed.” Then, “punctilious.” Then “a. being on time; b. characterized by regular occurrence, as in ‘the punctual small drop of water dripping somewhere in the rear,’ from Thomas Wolfe.” I have actually never heard “punctual” used  in sense 1 or 2—”I like the punctual aspect of a pencil” or “his argument was effective because it was so punctual.” But I, and I suspect most of us, use “punctual” in its fourth Websterian sense; in fact, I can see that minute hand or hour hand touching the pip that marks the hour (etc.); I can see the second hand tripping its way around the outer circle of little pips. Are you punctual? That would mean that when the play begins at 8 p.m., you are in your seat and ready for the show when the little hand is on the 8 and the big hand becomes exactly vertical.

And when I mean “punctilious,” I say “punctilious.” I myself am fairly punctilious when it comes to, um, punctuation.

Webster’s gives a conceptual meaning to lead off its definition of punctuation: “the act of punctuating: the state of being punctuated.” The second definition emphasizes the “art or practice” of inserting punctuation marks. So we go to punctuate and find that its nearest root is the Middle Latin punctuatus, past participle of punctuare, to point, from Latin punctus. To punctuate is “to mark or divide (written matter) with punctuation marks.” Figuratively it can also mean “to break into or interrupt at intervals,” as in Edith Wharton’s “the steady click of her knitting needles punctuated the silence.”

My student didn’t know a word that would mean “punctuation-rules-related” knowledge, so, probably unwittingly, he went all the way to the root of the matter and put his adjectival ending on “punct.” And why not? I found it resourceful. The fact that it was also CONFUSING is the problem, of course.

I will not go on to speculate about the strategic nature of punctuation tasks, but while we’re on the subject of resourcefulness, I think we should take a look at that “daughnting.”

We all have speaking or listening vocabularies that are larger than, or in some ways different from, our writing vocabularies. He has heard the word “daunting,” I am sure. But when it comes to deploying it himself, he is unsure, and this was an in-class impromptu, no SpellCheck available with the click of a mouse. What to do?

He could have substituted a word he knew he could spell. But I like the word “daunting,” and I’ll bet he does too, at least in the sentence he wanted to write. So, my lad, Sound It Out.

The cluster “aunt” should have come to him if he can spell “flaunting,” or “taunting,” or at least “haunting.” But “aunt” as a stand-alone word is less reliable as a pronunciation guide: from New Jersey, I pronounce it just the way I pronounce those insects that swarm all over the picnic blanket, or my kitchen floor on rainy summer days; many people from Connecticut, where we currently are, seem to sigh with pleasure when referring to their ahnts; the British seem to have some regrets, since they also have awnts. Did this variability give my student pause?

Daughtr…caught…taught…now, that’s a consistent pattern. Is THAT how “gh” crept into the relatively uncluttered “daunt”?

He was being punctilious on the basis of the wrong set of points.