A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

How do you spell X? Y.

Many of us are familiar with the commercial in which the question is asked, “How do you spell ‘relief’?” And the answer is “R-O-L-A-I-D-S.” According to Wikipedia, this commercial has been around since the 1970’s.

I came across an earlier example from 1793, in Elder John Leland’s “The history of Jack Nips”:

Like other boys, I wished to be in fashion, and as the Presbyterians were the most fashionable, I applied myself to the study of their books, but was not a little puzzled to reconcile their writings with my boyish thoughts. I could not, for my gizzard, understand their orthography, until I was more than sixteen. They would spell thus: c-i-r, cir, c-u-m, cum, c-i, ci, s-e-d, baptism.

(The full tract can be found here, but beware the cheesy embedded sound file).

Not quite the same thing is found in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Ursula and Hero are discussing Beatrice, and Hero says:

I never yet saw man,
How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featured,
But she would spell him backward. ( Much Ado About Nothing, 3.1)

Wikipedia says it was first published in 1600. But I still think Leland’s turn is different enough to consider it separately. Was Leland the first person to use the spelling of a word to stand for a quality of a different concept all together?


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