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Posted at 3:10 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Where's Quatar? The Qatar world cup and the death of spelling

By Alexandra Petri


Wait, Qatar's hosting World Cup 2022? Seriously?

All I know about Qatar is that most Americans don't know how to spell it or find it on a map. This doesn't narrow it down much. It could be anywhere but Canada. Then again, all I know about the World Cup itself is that it sounds like something Earth has to wear to the gym.

But my biggest problem is that, in light of this news, Quatar and Katar have been trending all over the place. This is embarrassing! I bet Noah Webster is rolling in his grave!

Google Trends are worse than WikiLeaks when it comes to revealing the holes in our understanding of the international world. The WikiLeaks were, by and large, correctly spelled and dignified in tone. Sure, they described Karzai as "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts," but at least they didn't spell his name Carzy, or Quartzi, or something. Perhaps it would have been better if they had.

But the rest of us don't fare so well. Spelling is one of those skills -- like knowing where things are, whether we are compatible with potential mates, or what music we would like to hear next -- that we increasingly delegate to the array of benevolent machines constantly humming around us. Forget spelling quizzes! There's Autocorrect. Spelling bees are suffering the same fate as regular bees -- going quietly extinct, except for a few on television to sell us things. They're becoming an increasingly rarefied, trick-pony circuit rather than a common student experience, like square dancing and having to memorize state capitals. Who can blame us? These days, you can tell you've spelled something correctly because no thin colored line appears underneath it. (On a related note, I think The Thin Red Line would be a great name for a movie about America's spelling illiteracy.)

But this ignorance can be hilarious or disastrous. Witness, which documents cases where this reliance on Benevolent Machines to spell things correctly results in your accidentally telling your friends you hope to lick strangers' orifices or that you and Mom are going to "divorce" ("sorry, Disney") next weekend.

And it's a new modern ritual. Whenever anyone dies, or makes news, or takes World Cup 2022 from us, our first impulse seems to be to rush to the computer and hunt for a misspelled version of his, her, or its name. This wouldn't be noticeable, except that there are so many of us searching for these things all at once, and suddenly "Quatar" and "Leslie Nelson" wind up at the top of Google's search charts. I'm mortified!

It's one thing when an isolated individual doesn't know, say, whether Arizona borders Mexico -- and especially embarrassing when this is an elected official. But it's entirely different when millions of us rush to our computers and demonstrate a similarly appalling ignorance. Misspell me once in an isolated, private setting, shame on you. Misspell me millions of times, making Quatar one of today's most-searched terms, shame on everyone! And our school system!

It wasn't always like this. Bill Bryson noted in his work "The Mother Tongue" that "For the longest time people seemed emphatically indifferent to matters of consistency in spelling." There was a time when spelling could be fairly idiosyncratic, a matter of personal preference and flair. But that was centuries ago! Then Samuel Johnson came along with his dictionary, and Noah Webster came along with his, and along with these came the expectation that we were trying to communicate and it might make sense to use consistent sets of letters to express the same meaning. It took a while to wean people off their spelling idiosyncrasies. "It just looks naked without the second t and bonus e," they muttered, "And I miss throwing y's into my words at random."

Nowadays, there, but for the grace of Autocorrect, go we. Perhaps this won't ever emerge as a problem -- Spellcheck and Autocorrect will wrangle our words into some semblance of accuracy, and Google will know what we mean when we look for Quatar and Qooter. Spelling will be just another casualty of the information age -- when, because we can technically know everything at the touch of a key, we stop worrying about learning anything. "Those who don't learn history might be doomed to repeat it," we mutter, "but those who don't learn spelling have Autocorrect. Sure, it can be a problem if you're trying to look up a symptom -- "I have this bloody cough, but it keeps telling me about the World Cup!" -- but I'm sure we'll sort it out! Why worry?

But the small nervous part of me that constantly thinks things are like 1984 finds this trend alarming. Lose the word for a thing, and you lose the thought behind it. And the first step to losing the word is losing the spelling. And whoever said words can't hurt you never accidentally declared war on Guitar.

As a protest, I'm thinking of starting a travel company to bilk people who fail to spell the names of countries correctly. Visit Gum for a fraction of the cost of Guam, or stop by Singepore! Discount packages to imaginary places at peak times! I'll make a killing!

What do you say? Have you ever been to Quatar?

By Alexandra Petri  | December 2, 2010; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  kids these days, spelling, spooky  
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OK, spelling it is hard enough, but how do you pronounce it?

I remember newscasters always pronounced it "gutter." But Wikipedia has 2 other possiblilities. (what's the damn red line doing under that last word?)

I say forget the "cat tar." My mind is still in the "gutter."

Posted by: divtune | December 2, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

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