s is for scholar

Matthew Yglesias gets a cake upon which various words have been misspelled in his honor. Garance Franke-Ruta speculates:

As blogs move us into a less heavily copy-edited world, I sometimes wonder if we’re moving back into a more 16th and 17th century form of writing, where the idea of correct spelling was less important than the communication of meaning — which, in reality, can be accomplished just as well with incorrectly spelled words and homonyms as with a more perfect language. And also: as we move ever deeper into this new world of speech-like writing, will the perfect, formal language of the page one day seem as antique and elaborate as Victorian silverware?

So far, only one person has commented on her post and it’s none other than Anthony Grafton – no stranger to old pamphlets – who notes (side-stepping the question of spelling for the perhaps more interesting question of editing):

Actually, most printing-houses in the 16th and 17th century had professional copy-editors–the so-called correctors, whose title came from their chief task of proof correction. They also prepared copy, correcting errors of style and fact, and added punctuation. It’s true that pamphlets weren’t always corrected: but most renaissance writers expected that their work would be gone over, corrected and polished before the public saw it.

For my part, I wonder how the state of English spelling at the time compared with that of other European languages. Were they similarly non-standardized?


2 Responses to s is for scholar

  1. Witt says:

    I think Garance’s point is odd, because I often think about how problematic the over-precision of computers is. Lots of library patrons give up in disappointment that “The library doesn’t own this book” when what they mean is “I typed in ‘Poison wood bible’ and actually the book is ‘Poisonwood bible’ and so it didn’t come up.”

    It happens constantly with author names that are slightly off, such that a person flipping through a paper card catalog might reasonably find it, but a person doing a standard computerized search won’t. The more parents and celebrities start varying the spelling of their own/their kids’ names, the worse the problem is going to get.

  2. andrew says:

    Well yes, there are reasons for valuing standardized spelling that can be overlooked when objecting to people being excessively critical of someone’s spelling.

    And to bring this all together: it can be hard to find 16th and 17th century pamphlets searching by exact title in library catalogs or online databases unless the database is able to recognize alternative spellings.

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