I feel dirty.
Not in an erotic way. This isn't that kind of blog. Nor is this a personal hygiene issue, except perhaps in a moral sense. I feel a crawling of the skin, an itching of the scalp, but I don't think a long hot shower is going to help.
What's causing this revulsion is the sense that I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail. The UK government has issued new guidance on how schoolkids should be taught to spell. No longer will they learn "i before e except after c", because "there are too many exceptions", it seems.
This advice comes from a report named, apparently without a trace of irony, "Understanding English Spelling", by one Masha Bell. "Children are having to fill their heads with this rubbish - because spelling is rubbish," the author is quoted as saying. Proof, if proof were needed, that here is a person who is remarkably unqualified to write a report called "Understanding English Spelling", much less have that report adopted as official guidance for schools
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I can't spell. It's a simple, if sad, fact of life: almost no-one can spell. I'm pretty sure I'm in the top 1% of English spellers, but it still happens, from time to time, that I suddenly learn I've been spelling a word wrongly for years. Quite ordinary words, like "weird" or "diarrhoea". I've no doubt there are still at least a handful of words that I routinely misspell.
And yet I take spelling very seriously. I believe in it.
The spelling of a word carries far more information than just its dictionary-listed meaning. It tells us, if we know what to look for, where the word comes from, what philosophical and intellectual baggage it carries. Most importantly, it shows something about how the word relates to other words, both in English and in other languages. A secretary, for instance, is one who keeps secrets. A library is a place (the '-ary' suffix) for books (French 'libres'). If I spelled these words the way people in my part of the world spoke them (secatry, lybrie), I'd never have made those connections.
This is one of the problems with spelling reform. It's the same problem as with every other kind of reform. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said it best: "Everything is connected to everything else."
When Mr Webster decided that the Americans needed their own spelling to separate them from the British, he ran into this problem straight away. "Center" may look more natural than "centre", but on the other hand, it means you need a whole new rule - "drop the penultimate e" - to form words like "central" and "centrifuge". American English is no easier to spell than British or International English: it's just different.
That's why I don't believe people who argue that spelling reform would improve school performance. Anyone who believes that, I reckon, just hasn't given it enough thought.
(Pop quiz: What can spelling tell us about the key difference between "thought" and "consideration", or "meditation", or any other word ending with "-tion"?)
There is one other argument for spelling reform, but it's one that is never stated, because it's so self-evidently a thing of utmost evil. It's the argument that reform will make everything written Before, harder to read.
Why would anyone want to do that? I can think of three reasons, which would be supported - equally covertly - by three equally unholy special interests.
First, it reinforces the divide between "elite" and popular culture, making it harder to bridge that gap. Thus creating work for sociologists, opportunities for class warriors and petty demagogues.
Second, it creates a New Culture for a New Britain, divorced from everything that has gone before. We get to rewrite everything, shrugging off any contradiction based on un-PC older sources. This appeals to the social-engineering wing of the radical left.
Third, it's a publishing opportunity. All those older works, hundreds of thousands of books, that can optionally be updated. And, of course, renewed copyrights on everything from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas! When publishers hear of spelling reform, it's all they can do to keep the drool inside their mouths.
[Answer to pop quiz: "thought" is an Anglo-Saxon word (the silent "-gh-" is a dead giveaway), coming from a direct, plain-speaking culture. "-tion" words come from Latin, whose speakers were much more given to studying the art of speaking. When someone uses a "-tion" word, they're not saying what they think, they're thinking about what they say. It's an important difference.]