Three Wordsmiths From History (Who Couldn’t Spell)

When it comes to choosing Social Media Managers, one of the attributes the Wordsmiths look for is a love of language – after all, words are at the core of what we offer our clients. Our writers range from rhetoric-wranglers to published authors; but we all have one thing in common: a debilitating fear of spelling mistakes.

After four years as a Community Manager with various clients, the compulsory spell-check has become something of a nervous tic for me – and with good reason. The last thing any self-respecting Social Media Strategist wants is an email from a client featuring an accusatory screenshot and an explanation of the correct usage of a third person plural possessive adjective.

Still, mistakes do happen – and in the event that I’m ever caught with my modifiers dangling, I’ve collected some case studies to prove I’m in excellent company.

Exhibit A – Alfred Mosher Butts

Alfred Butts

Not just a fantastic pair of glasses and a great name, Alfred had a way with words – or rather, the 26 letters we use to build them.

He was the inventor of Lexiko, which was later renamed Criss Cross Words. You’ll probably know it best as Scrabble.

The story goes that Butts was working as an architect when he suddenly found himself out of a job, thanks to the Great Depression. So, with nothing better to do – it would be almost 60 years before streaming services came along – he decided to sit down and create a board game.

This was actually a fairly logical decision for him, since he was a keen gamer who’d already spent a lot of time analyzing popular pastimes like chess and word puzzles. He’d noticed that there was one thing blocking word games from the popularity of card games – “They have no score.”

According to Hasbro, Butts studied the front page of The New York Times while he was making calculations for the game’s letter distribution. It was clever, careful cryptographic analysis, and the distribution of letter tiles has gone unchanged through almost three generations.

Despite his fascination with letters, Butts freely admitted that he was a terrible speller. His word-savvy wife Nina (who had taught him in his youth – best not to dwell on that too long) usually beat him at his own game. She once played quixotic across two triple-word scores, winning 280 points on a single turn.

Imagine playing such a good game of Scrabble that people are still talking about it 70 years later. Nina Butts was so cool, you guys, for real.

Exhibit B – John Keats

John Keats

I just need a moment of your time to talk about John Keats, because this is one of my favourite grammar gaffes of all time. Also, I’ll jump at any excuse to talk about beautiful, doomed poets.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, go and check out La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and then take a look at Ode to a Nightingale. Then, if you’re into it, try To Autumn. They’re all lovely.

Keats was madly in love with a woman called Fanny Brawne, and they exchanged the most beautiful letters before and during their engagement – because romance was impossibly slow and frustrating before the arrival of Tinder and dick pics.

In one of these letters, Keats misspelled the word purple as purplue, which is a lot of fun to say but definitively not a word. Instead of admitting to his mistake, Keats tried to style it out by suggesting he’d coined a new portmanteau – a mix of purple and blue.

It’s genius. The ol’ Portmanteau Defence. Completely inspired.

Exhibit C ­– Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

It’s difficult to summarise Hemingway’s life, because it’s frankly mental, so I’m basically just going to list a whole bunch of unbelievable things he actually did. Enjoy:

Hemingway was a decorated hero, injured in WWI and a war correspondent in both WWII and the Spanish Civil War. His most famous works include A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast. He partied with Fitzgerald, Stein and Picasso.

He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, publishing seven novels, six short-story collections and two non-fiction works over the course of his career. Many of his works are now widely considered classics of American Literature.

His style was famously economical and understated, and his Iceberg Theory had a robust influence on 20th century writing. He’s credited with writing that six-word story about never-worn baby shoes, but he probably didn’t actually do it – too busy getting married four times, perhaps.

He survived two plane crashes, only days apart. He beat malaria, anthrax, pneumonia, skin cancer, a fractured skull, ruptured spleen and liver and diabetes.

Despite all this, he couldn’t spell very well. But that was a non-issue; whenever somebody complained about it, he’d reply: “Well, that’s what you’re hired to correct.” If a client ever complained about my spelling, my apology would be immediate and groveling. I don’t have an ounce Hemingway’s moxie – but I do know the difference between Their, There and They’re, so there’s that.

In conclusion, it’s okay to make spelling mistakes, assuming:

1) You are married to a badass who’s willing to proof-read everything you do
2) You can come up with charming excuses under pressure
3) You are Ernest Hemingway

Otherwise, it’s probably best to do a quick spell-check before posting.