Tales of the city: In the beginning was the word

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The Independent Online

WB Yeats, for all his Olympian airs, was an atrocious speller. Trying to write the word "peculiarities" in a letter, he turned it into "peculeraritys". But there are more important things in life than orthographical rectitude. Me, I've always had a problem with "ecstasy" and "practise", but that's my misspent youth to blame. Here at the paper, after you've read 500 e-mails asking if the "Independant" would like to run a feature on something, you tend not to get worked up any more. When I pass the gymnasium at Herne Hill and note that the sign above the door says "Oxzygeem", I merely marvel at how many words are being squeezed into this inventive, eight-letter portmanteau. But we're heading, this autumn, into a great buzzing cloud of spelling bees, homophones, dialectal variants and more information than you may absolutely need about getting letters in the right order.

WB Yeats, for all his Olympian airs, was an atrocious speller. Trying to write the word "peculiarities" in a letter, he turned it into "peculeraritys". But there are more important things in life than orthographical rectitude. Me, I've always had a problem with "ecstasy" and "practise", but that's my misspent youth to blame. Here at the paper, after you've read 500 e-mails asking if the "Independant" would like to run a feature on something, you tend not to get worked up any more. When I pass the gymnasium at Herne Hill and note that the sign above the door says "Oxzygeem", I merely marvel at how many words are being squeezed into this inventive, eight-letter portmanteau. But we're heading, this autumn, into a great buzzing cloud of spelling bees, homophones, dialectal variants and more information than you may absolutely need about getting letters in the right order.

Vivian Cook's spelling guide Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary is amused and tolerant about modern spelling abominations such as "definately" and "millenium" or (the one everyone gets wrong) "dessicate". Things will be less amusing, however, when children get involved. When BBC1 starts its Hard Spell programme on Monday evening, it'll be the start of a nationwide witch-hunt for rogue vowels and "I-before- E-except-after-C" refuseniks.

The Beeb approached the nation's schools earlier this year and asked them to find their best speller. The hapless winners went on to take part in nine regional heats last month, and cameras took a ringside seat as the neurotic tinies (and their weeping families) headed for the quarter-finals, the semis, and the big finale. You've seen this kind of spelling boot camp before, of course - in the film Spellbound, last year. You may remember the alarmed look on the faces of the children being pushed reluctantly towards spelling glory by their greedy parents. The competition is called the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, and has been going on for 76 years. Interested schools have to buy, online, a list of words which will feature in the competition - but they also offer, as an appetite-whetter, a list of frequently-used words, such as "adsmith, braunschweiger, cappelletti, derism, ephapse, flokati, garlion, huisache, intertriginous, jinete, kanone, larigo, malloseismic, neutercane, oniomania, precibal, quokka, ruade, stamnos, toolach, upeygan, vendaval, womp, xylophagous, yannigan, and zuchett".

Having trouble? So was I. According to Cook, hardly any of these spelling-test words can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, that Bible of lexical correctness. No, I tell a lie, "quokka" is in the OED ("A short-tailed wallaby, native to Western Australia") but that's it. "They're mostly technical words from a variety of specialist fields," comments Cook. "Why children should be expected to learn lists of very obscure terms I can't imagine." Me neither. But, all over the States, children are being pressed to spell, "correctly", words that, in effect, don't exist in English, and will never be the least bit of practical use to them. Honestly. It's outragous. (Outragius? Outrageous!)

Want a VIP credit card? Get a life!

Coutts Bank used to be a byword in old-fashioned style. Their chequebooks were as ornate as the Book of Kells. Their tellers wore silk top hats. If you tried to join them without having half a million in your current account, they'd cough discreetly behind their hands and steer you, as firmly as a footman, to the tradesman's entrance. They were the kind of bank which, you assumed, had no truck with bankers' cards because their customers would be (of course) gentlemen.

Now they've taken a leap into the modern world by launching a credit card. Not only is the name "Coutts", in its old-fashioned copperplate handwriting, semi-obliterated by the word "world" marching all over its surface like a power-crazed rash, but it's purple. Hardly surprising, once you learn the card was designed by Ozwald Boateng, that popinjay of Savile Row; frankly, I'm surprised it doesn't have an additional lining in acid green, and be available in a cashmere-mohair mix as well as plastic. But the climax of the Coutts marketing offensive are the "additional services" you get with the card. For the bank offers its exclusive members not just fancy jet-set holidays and chauffered limos: they offer you a biographer.

No, really. Favoured customers will get the chance to have their life written by a "top author". It's quite something, isn't it? I'm not sure which top authors Coutts have on their stocks (on retainer? On staff? On call?) but I assume they'll be only the best. Can they really call on the services of, say, AN Wilson (who, having written the lives of saints in the past, would be very suitable for this kind of work) or Michael Holroyd (who specialised in men with beards until he turned autobiographical) or Peter Ackroyd (who always does Londoners)? Can Coutts guarantee that, if you spend more than £1m a year, Victoria Glendinning or Hermione Lee will arrive on your doorstep one day and say: "Hi. I've been commissioned to write your life-story"? Well done to Coutts, if that's the case. As consumer incentives go, it knocks Barclays' leatherette 2005 diary into a cocked hat.

Pendant pedants

I see the dressmaker Scott Henshall has upset some people by meeting the Queen while wearing, not a tie, but a diamond-cross pendant. An unimpressed Palace lackey commented, "People should wear ties but, as it is a fashion reception, we are expecting some latitude". Oh are we, indeed? Has the Palace failed to notice that the greatest latitude in dress-sense these days is not seen among the fashion demi-monde, but among world leaders? Tony Blair attending a summit in a plum-coloured jump-suit was bad enough. Silvio Berlusconi affecting a bandanna while greeting the Blairs at his Riviera palace, was worse. But Vladimir Putin and George W Bush going walkabout in ponchos at the Chile summit was a fashion statement too far. We can only heave a sigh of relief that Jacques Chirac didn't show up at Buck House in an off-the-shoulder Dior frock.

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