Sunday, March 11, 2012

War of the Words

Niles: Stop! Look at yourselves! This is wrong. What are words after all but a way to communicate, to bring us together? But you, you're using them as weapons! Now we still have an opportunity to walk out of here as winners. And wouldn't that be the greatest spellabration of all?

Frasier: He's right, son. Let's go home.

Clayton: Yeah, we're all winners. Except for the two cheaters. (Frasier, Niles and Freddie freeze but continue walking)

Warren: Hey, do you know how to spell "loser"? C–R–A–N–E. (Again the Cranes freeze but continue walking)

Clayton: You don't have to worry about ever seeing him again, son. Chances are he'll end up in a state school. (The Cranes spin around)

Niles: How dare you? (to Freddie) Can you take him?

Freddie: Yeah.

Niles: Then spell his ass off!

I always enjoy watching the episode of Frasier"War of the Words" — that aired for the first time 10 years ago tomorrow night.

There are probably several reasons for that. It was about the national championship of the spelling bee competition, which, by a happy coincidence, was taking place in Seattle. In an even happier coincidence for the Cranes, Frasier's son from Boston (Trevor Einhorn) was one of the contestants.

Having spent several years of my life working for newspapers (and most of those years were spent on the copy desks), I have more than a passing interest in spelling. I also taught journalism — specifically, editing — on the university level.

I took a different path for awhile, but I'm back in teaching, in my second year as an adjunct professor in the Dallas community college system. I teach news writing to journalism students and a more generic form of writing for non–journalism students. Spelling figures prominently in both.

When Frasier was on NBC's primetime schedule, I could usually congratulate myself on not being as eccentric or elitist as Frasier was about everything. Most of the time, anyway.

But this episode was something of an exception to the rule for me.

I guess I've always been a little picky about spelling. (For some people, I suppose, the word "picky" isn't really adequate for describing me.) In my copy editing days, I made the spelling corrections in individual stories, but I seldom mentioned the mistakes to the reporters. I just hoped they would notice that a change had been made.

A lot of people today will tell you that it is not as important as it once was to be able to spell, thanks to the existence of computer spell checkers. But I disagree. Spell checkers don't check for context — and even if they did, the auto correct feature in some programs often makes the wrong assumptions.

And a spell checker that does not automatically correct misspelled words is far too easy for most people to ignore.

So you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't with spell checkers.

At any rate, I admire folks who know how to spell and comprehend the subtle distinctions between words that sound the same but are not spelled the same. It's an underappreciated skill.

The episode of Frasier that aired 10 years ago tomorrow night was something of an homage to those who possess that skill.

Niles, apparently, was such a person. As viewers learned, he had once been a contestant in the national spelling bee — but he choked under pressure.

"Don't get sidetracked by all the glitz and glamour of the Bee," Niles cautioned his nephew. "Spelling well is its own reward."

Frederick persevered and won — but his triumph was short–lived. His runnerup accused him of cheating, and a tape of the competition appeared to support the accusation. Thus, Frederick was forced to relinquish his crown.

That twist of fate left a bad taste in Frederick's mouth, and he wasn't going to attend the awards dinner — until he had a little conversation with Niles.

Niles told Freddie the story of his moment in the spelling spotlight. He had never spoken of it before, he told Freddie, "but I will since you also have The Gift."

When Niles finished telling Freddie of his experience, Freddie had changed his mind about attending the awards dinner.

But after the Cranes arrived, they were unable to avoid a confrontation with the new winner — or his father — and they took matters into the street, where Freddie and the other boy squared off in a spelling contest ...

... which Freddie won and reclaimed the spelling trophy.

I suppose the episode could be classified as a feel good moment. At some level, most of us probably can empathize with Freddie and his struggle to retain what he (and we) believed had been taken from him unjustly.

And, to some extent, haven't we all been there?