Desert Island spelling

A wrenchingly funny E. S. Glenn cartoon in the latest (10/18/21) issue of the New Yorker:

(#1) The usual tiny cartoon Desert Island now has two neighborhoods: the customary grassy tropical island, plus a small beach zone, suitable for message-bearing  bottles to wash up on

Side notes: the castaway is shoeless, shirtless, and gaunt, his  makeshift cutoffs worn and patched — clearly, in a bad way. Meanwhile, Glenn has contrived to identify the castaway as Black (without shading his skin, as he did for the castaways in an earlier DI cartoon, reproduced below). Further, the cartoon imagines messages in bottles to be a kind of marine postal service, in which specific senders and receivers exchange messages in slow motion over great distances.

But the central point is the (in this case, wicked) obtuseness of spelling peevers, so intent on pointing out inadvertent typos and also mistaken spellings (the latter presumably being at issue in the cartoon) that they neglect to heed a desperate plea for help from a starving man.

The writer of this profoundly unhelpful message clearly understood the intent of the castaway’s cry for help — otherwise they couldn’t have corrected the spelling — but they utterly ignore this content in favor of officiously hectoring the writer over his spelling (“for his own good”, they would undoubtedly say). This is cluelessness so dramatic it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s close enough to events of real life to sting.

Here it’s spelling. In Woody Allen’s early movie Take the Money and Run it’s handwriting. From my 5/3/16 posting “Lawyers, Gubs and Monkeys”:

Gubs is a reference to the many [court] cases involving startlingly inept bank robbers, like Virgil Starkwell in Woody Allen’s early movie Take the Money and Run … Virgil’s attempt to rob a bank is foiled when the teller reads his handwritten note intended to say I’M POINTING A GUN AT YOU as … GUB …

The note is clearly a stickup note; if you then can’t figure out that what looks at first glance to be GUB was meant to be GUN, then you’re being deliberately uncooperative. (Back in the movie, while the tellers are arguing over the interpretation of apparent GUB, the cops arrive and haul Virgil off to prison. The scene is achingly funny. But of course we know we’re watching a movie. Made by a comic.)

What was the castaway’s offense? It turns out that desperate is on lots of lists of frequently misspelled words. From the site:

Desperate means “having lost all hope.” If you are desperate for food, it means you are starving, possibly about to die. If you are in a desperate situation, it means things are really, really bad.

Desperate, desparate, or despirate? The word desperate is misspelled often enough that it’s the despair of English teachers. Both desperate and despair come from the same Latin verb [sperare ‘to hope’] … Don’t mix it up with disparate, a totally different word that means “distinctive, different, various.”

(As I’ve noted occasionally on Language Log and this blog, the appeal to etymology in such cases is profoundly silly. If despair goes back to sperare, why isn’t it spelled DESPERE? Or, conversely, if the noun despair and the adjective desperate derived from it have the same root, why isn’t the verb spelled DESPAIRATE? The larger point is that memorizing the etymologies of words as an aid to spelling them would be a vastly more gigantic task than the substantial task of memorizing the currently standard spellings for them, which often seem whimsical.)

Why is DESPARATE such a common misspelling for desperate? A large part of the answer is that the default spelling for /ǝ/, its medial unaccented vowel, is A (as in ACROSS, TERRAPIN, and SOFA). Contributing to the problem is another commonly misspelled word, the adjective separate.

Again from

You can use the adjective separate to describe something that is thought of as different or not related to other things. The adjective is from the Latin prefix se- “apart” plus parare “to prepare.” … Separate is one of the most commonly misspelled words, so beware of the erroneous spelling, seperate.

Here, if you were inclined to use E to spell /ǝ/, you learn to use A instead. Then, along comes desperate

Glenn’s earlier Desert Island cartoon (DIc). In my 12/31/20 posting “Wrong turn at Catalina”, this DIc, without the message in a bottle (MIB) trope:

(#2) You will recognize the male figure in this cartoon (the posting has information on E. S. Glenn, who was new to this blog)

Messages in bottles. From Wikipedia:

A message in a bottle (abbrev. MIB) is a form of communication in which a message is sealed in a container (typically a bottle) and released into a conveyance medium (typically a body of water).

Messages in bottles have been used to send distress messages, in crowdsourced scientific studies of ocean currents, as memorial tributes, to send deceased loved ones’ ashes on a final journey, to convey expedition reports, and to carry letters or reports from those believing themselves to be doomed. Invitations to prospective pen pals and letters to actual or imagined love interests have also been sent as messages in bottles.

The lore surrounding messages in bottles has often been of a romantic or poetic nature.

Use of the term “message in a bottle” has expanded to include metaphorical uses or uses beyond its traditional meaning as bottled messages released into oceans. The term has been applied to plaques on craft launched into outer space, interstellar radio messages, stationary time capsules, balloon mail, and containers storing medical information for use by emergency medical personnel.

With a growing awareness that bottles constitute waste that can harm the environment and marine life, environmentalists tend to favor biodegradable drift cards and wooden blocks.

… Bottled messages may date to about 310 B.C., in water current studies reputed to have been carried out by Greek philosopher Theophrastus.[6] The Japanese medieval epic The Tale of the Heike records the story of an exiled poet who, in about 1177 A.D., launched wooden planks on which he had inscribed poems describing his plight. … In the nineteenth century, literary works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1833 “MS. Found in a Bottle” and Charles Dickens’ 1860 “A Message from the Sea” inspired an enduring popular passion for sending bottled messages.

Floating wood-and-metal “drift casks” launched from northern Alaska in 1899-1901 reached Siberia, Iceland and Norway, becoming the first human-made objects to transit the Northwest Passage.

… Scientific experiments involving drift objects — more generally called determinate drifters — provide information about currents and help researchers develop ocean circulation maps. For example, experiments conducted in the mid-1700s by Benjamin Franklin and others indicated the existence and approximate location of the Gulf Stream, with scientific confirmation following in the mid-1800s.

MIBs have a rich life in popular culture. First, in cartoons, on their own (without a DI), as in my 5/10/14 posting “Party of five”, with this Bizarro cartoon as #4 there:

(#3) The MIB trope, updated for the age of cellphones

And also in song. From Wikipedia:

“Message in a Bottle” (sometimes incorrectly called “Sending Out An S.O.S.”) is a song by English rock band The Police. It was released as the lead single from their second studio album, Reggatta de Blanc (1979). Written by the band’s lead singer and bassist Sting, the song is ostensibly about a story of a castaway on an island, who sends out a message in a bottle to seek love. A year later, he has not received any sort of response, and despairs, thinking he is destined to be alone. The next day, he sees “a hundred billion bottles” on the shore, finding out that there are more people like him out there.

And in fiction and film. From Wikipedia on the movie:

Message in a Bottle is a 1999 American romantic drama film directed by Luis Mandoki and based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1998 novel of the same name. It stars Kevin Costner, Robin Wright (under her married name Robin Wright Penn) and Paul Newman, and was filmed in Maine, Chicago and Wilmington, North Carolina.

DI + MIB cartoons on this blog. Apparently, made for one another. Three of them on this blog before #1:

— #3 in my 10/23/20 posting “A New Yorker trio”:

(#4) A Christopher Weyant DIc in which (huge) bottles serve as a means of transport

— in my 12/25/20 posting “Desert Island chat”:

(#5) A Colin Tom DIc in which a castaway is overwhelmed by MIBs

— #2 in my 8/28/21 posting “Desert Island days”:

(#6) A JAK (Jason Adam Katzenstein) DIc in which MIBs are accumulating unread

There are, of course, tons of DIcs without MIBs, like #2 — the New Yorker seems to have one in almost every issue, in fact.

4 Responses to “Desert Island spelling”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    On messages in bottles, see the recent story in the NYT about St. Kilda, the most remote archipelago in the Scottish isles:
    Here we learn that “For decades, St. Kildans sometimes launched their mail blindly into the sea in small waterproof containers; the hope was that their “mailboats,” as they were called, might by chance reach a populated place or be picked up and sent along by a passing ship.”

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    When I was a kid, and already a pretty decent speller, on one occasion I nonetheless made the desparate error, and as I recall my uncertainty was resolved the wrong way by (1) analogy with separate and (2) an association with the name Despard, in particular Sir Despard Murgatroyd, (supposed) Baronet of Ruddigore.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Wonderful story: led astray, in part, by your cultural knowledge. I, too, more than once have been led to desparate because of separate.

      As a child, I was led to fourty ’40’ instead of forty — and, having been corrected on that, and having the analogies of fifty and fifth and fifteen as models, was then led to forth ‘4th’ instead of fourth. My teacher that year was baffled by such mistakes from a normally excellent speller, and I didn’t have the concepts and terms on hand to explain to her that I was a generalization-seeking device (even small generalizations running counter to larger ones), not a crude memory machine. I did fall back on protesting by appealing to the analogies, and she was reduced to having to say that it was FORTY and FOURTH just because that was the way it was. (Though like all teachers stuck with trying to teach the intricacies of modern English spelling, she appealed to analogies constantly, and then found herself saying that the analogies were absolutely crucial in learning to spell correctly — except the many times when they didn’t apply, and you just had to learn when that was.)

      You will note that I still resent the one-two punches of FORTY (because analogy) and then FOURTH (because different analogy). I would have accepted the explanation that this part of the spelling system didn’t make sense, it just was, but the accusation that *I should have known* that one analogy applied in one case and a contrary analogy in the other — the accusation that I was too stupid to understand — riled me then, and still does. (In part because I had learned I had to elaborately conceal just how smart I was and to contrive ways to unobtrusively work on material that was four or five grades ahead of the one I was in, while being a good and helpful member of the class community — which, being an amiable and empathetic child, I was actually quite good at.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: