Today is the birthday of former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle. Born in 1947 in Indianapolis, Quayle was elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, before he was selected by George H.W. Bush to join him on the Republican ticket in 1988.
As vice president, Quayle made official visits to 47 countries and served as the chairman of the National Space Council. Unfortunately for Quayle his accomplishments while in office were overshadowed by a single embarrassing incident on June 15, 1992.
While visiting a New Jersey elementary school, Quayle lent a hand by officiating a sixth-grade spelling bee. As television news cameras rolled, a sixth-grader named William Figueroa approached the blackboard to spell the word, “potato.” When Figueroa finished his correct spelling of the word, Quayle mistakenly asked him to add an “e” at the end of the word. Despite the fact that he was relying on a card provided from the school for the “correct” spelling, the incident hurt Quayle’s credibility and added to the perception by some that he was not very smart. In his memoir Standing Firm, Quayle acknowledged the enormity of his embarrassing moment:
It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was (1).
We might balance Dan Quayle’s moment of food-spelling infamy with a contrasting moment of food-spelling triumph. On June 4, 1970, at the 43rd Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., 14-year-old Libby Childress of Mount Airy, North Carolina won the title of the nation’s best speller when she correctly spelled “croissant.” (see September 12: Croissants and Cappuccino Day)
Taking on the study of food words like “potato,” reveals the English language’s tendency to borrow words from a smorgasbord of languages, often without altering the spelling from the original language. Like so many words in English, these food words reveal the huge gulf that exists between English spelling and English pronunciation. You might remember, for example, the English playwright George Bernard Shaw who gave us the word GHOTI, which he pronounced “fish.” (See July 26: Ghoti Day).
Shaw based his pronunciation on the “logic” of following existing words in English:
-The gh in ghoti was the f sound in enough.
-The o was from the i sound in women.
-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.
Today’s Challenge: A Buffet of Baffling Spellings
What are some examples of food words that have challenging spellings? Brainstorm a list of at least ten food words with challenging spellings. Here are a few examples at to get you started:
Dessert, Sherbet, Barbecue/Barbeque, Mascarpone, Tomato, Omelet/Omelette, Espresso, Fettuccine, Cappuccino, Broccoli, Zucchini, Caramel, Gyro, Pho, Sriracha, Quesadilla
Using a good dictionary, look up each of your words. Write down the correct spelling, the definition, and the language of origin of each food item. Once you have completed your list, challenge a friend to correctly spell the words on your menu.
Quotation of the Day: I’ve always written high-quality sentences, prepared with the finest grammatical ingredients. In the coming year, I’m raising the bar even higher: I’ll be offering only artisanal words, locally grown, hand-picked, minimally processed, organically prepared, and sustainably packaged. -Michael Erard