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May 7, 2013

Jim Bailey: If you’re going to spell Mississippi, spell it the way it looks

I guess kids these days have different ways of learning. But it must not be as much fun.

Daughter Ruth said Ronnie, 10, was spelling Mississippi the other day. That’s one of those interminable words that are easy to misspell, so people used to make a game out of it. That’s the way Bonnie’s mom taught her to spell it and how she taught our kids.

So Ruth said to Ronnie, “That’s not how it’s spelled. It’s spelled ‘M-I- crooked-letter, crooked-letter I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter I, humpback humpback I.”

Ronnie just looked at her with one of those expressions that screams out, “You must be crazy.” Was it really so strange, Ruth wondered. So she asked Ron how he spelled it, hoping for some reinforcement. He told her he had never heard anything so weird in all his life.

I suppose with all the changes in our society, some things don’t get passed down from generation to generation the way they used to. And I’m sure the fun way would not be acceptable if the word came up in a spelling bee. But you mean to tell me Ruth’s family had never heard of the crooked-letter I version before?

I even remember a popular song from the early ’50s, “By the M-I- crooked-letter crooked-letter I,” etc., “flowing down to New Orleans…” Google didn’t retrieve the lyrics of that one for me, but there have been a couple more versions in recent years.

The letter S, after all, is a crooked letter. And P has a humpback. I suppose that version would no longer be politically correct, at least in reference to anyone suffering from scoliosis.

Mississippi, an Indian word for “Father of Waters,” is one of those words you have to pay attention to spell correctly. I’ve seen it spelled Mississippy, Missippi, Mississipi and a bunch of other variations. Why couldn’t they have come up with something simpler, like Nile? At least Mississippi is pronounceable, unlike England’sThames (pronounced Tems).

One of the popular jokes when I was a boy dealt with the river’s spelling. “I’m not sure how to spell Mississippi,” somebody would say. “How do you spell it?” Invariably the other person would respond, “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” “No,” the first person would say, “it’s I-T.”

Then you’d get stranger looks than Ruth did when she spelled the humpback version of Mississippi.

It’s a fun thing. You use the crooked-letter and humpback words in place of the letters as a catchy way of teaching kids to learn to spell it, er, uh, Mississippi.

But it won’t disappear from our family entirely. Daughter Rachel says her son Cameron has learned the same routine, and she says he can spell it either way.

Of course, Cameron, 9, has his mother’s knack for vocabulary anyway. During a conversation with his mom, he blurted out, “Mom, that is totally irrelevant.” OK, Cameron, but can you spell that one?

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by e-mail at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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