Leading Article: Spelling it out

AN OXFORD University Press survey into the nation's ability to spell has discovered that only 14 per cent of the citizenry can spell "millennium". And we're not good at spelling "accommodate", "mischievous" or "disastrous", either. Are we becoming a nation of Dan Quayles? Should we worry?

It is salutary to recall that before the publication of Dr Johnson's great 18th-century dictionary, standardised spelling did not exist as an objective, let alone a measurement of the standard of literacy. Students of Shakespeare are familiar with the fact that the world's most famous playwright could not even spell his own name consistently.

What, anyway, are the arguments for standardised spelling? The chief one must be that it reduces ambiguity; in legal documents, for example, it is easier to keep track of who's who if proper names are spelt consistently. But, in much of life, ambiguity and variation add charm and personality. What would poetry be without puns? Or, for that matter, Russian novels without patronymics, familiar names and all the rest?

As to the word "millennium", come the night we'll all be too groggy to play spelling games. And after that, it will be another 1,000 years before anyone has to write that tiresome word again - thank goodness.