Date: Tue, 1 Nov 94 23:54:48 PST
Subject: Bokays $3.99
[This comes, without permission, from the October 14th issue of the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, (aka the "P-I"). The article was called "English Language
Needs Spellcheck" but I fear that title doesn't do the article justice... -psl]
by Jill Severn
Nothing - not even spinach stuck in your front teeth -
is quite as embarrassing as having parents. If you don't
believe it, ask my son.
About a year ago, he and I were in the checkout line at
a Safeway store when I noticed that a sign on a display
of fresh flowers said "Bokays, $3.99." When we got up to
the checkstand, I handed the sign to the clerk and suggested
that she would want to have someone correct the misspelling.
"Oh no," she said, "That's the way they're spelling it now."
"Who is spelling it this way?" I demanded to know.
"Well the floral industry just decided to change it."
I admit it; I flipped. I started to tell her that the
floral industry was not in charge of spelling, and that
there was no excuse for that kind of illiteracy, and that
if they couldn't spell "bouquet," they shouldn't sell them.
Heads turned in our direction. My Son, who had faded into
the distance, reappeared long enough to grab my arm and drag
me out of the store.
He was truly mortified, and convinced I had lost my
mind. To this day he will not set foot in that store for
fear of being recognized as the son of a crazy woman.
He couldn't understand how I could lose my temper over
a misspelled word. Neither can I, really, but I still do -
and with increasing frequency. It turns out that the clerk
was right about this revision in the language - I have seen
signs for "bokays" cropping up like dandelions in the last
And don't even talk to me about apostrophes. They're
everywhere they shouldn't be, and rarely where they should
be any more. The other day I saw a sign in a department
store for "mens shirt's;" in the cafeteria of our state
capitol there is a blackboard with an ever-changing list of
"soup's of the day." Last week the grocery store had a sale
on "doughnut's." I was grateful when I found a sign for
"cantaloupes" that was not similarly afflicted.
A few months ago, in this very newspaper, I spotted the
word "her's" in a front-page story.
What is this world coming to? And why do these things
grate on me like Oliver North, Bob Dole, and Rush Limbaugh
all rolled into one?
One obvious source for this distress is my seventh grade
English teacher, who drilled into us an absolute dread of
telling a dog to "go lay down" when what we meant was "go
lie down." She also insisted that "drapes" is a verb, and
that "draperies" cover the windows. Her admonitions packed
the power of deep emotion.
I know that hers must be a tortured soul in an age when
people talk about how events "impact" their lives when they
mean affect, and that she would be horrified to know that
some of her students now "calendar" events rather than
But I also know that change in the language is
inevitable. Today's English. teachers have probably given
up on teaching correct usage of "lie" and "lay," and today's
young people are more likely to tell their dogs to "go
chill" anyway. Heaven knows the dogs don't care one way or
But here's the thing: the human capacity for change has
In my generation, many of us used up the bulk of our
capacity for changes in the '60s, and now we need remedial
stability. As a teenage Trotskyist, I was determined to
change everything. But, now - inevitably older and mellower
- I want at least a few things to remain the same, and I
draw my line in the sand at the proper spelling of bouquet
and the proper use of apostrophes.
We have all coped with the breakup of the nuclear
family, the end of the Cold War, and the advent of voice
mail. We have adjusted to the replacement of service
stations with convenience stores. We have reduced our
cholesterol intake and the size of our garbage cans.
And still there is so much that needs to change. We
still need health care reform, better schools, more
affordable housing and family-wage jobs. The state of our
inner cities is a clarion call for change in everything from
family behavior to federal policy.
And that's only the domestic agenda. At the
international level, the amount of change that's urgently
needed is truly staggering.
And all of it takes a particular form of energy that is
far too precious to squander. Side by side with the impulse
toward change and innovation is an equally powerful human
need for reliable landmarks and predictable traditions. This
is a need that cannot go unmet.
Unless the inevitable human tendency to resist change
is channeled into useful pursuits - such as protecting our
language from mindless degradation - it will continue to
run amok in the halls of Congress, in the education
establishment, and in the boardrooms of health insurance
So here's my proposal: When so much so clearly needs to
change, let's not waste our ability to adapt on adjusting
to bad spelling and punctuation. Let's resist - with protest
letters to florists, and a guerrilla white-out campaign
against misplaced apostrophes. If that doesn't work, we can
escalate: We can hold mass demonstrations in front of
offending flower shops, boycott businesses that abuse
apostrophes, and organize teach-ins on the difference
between nouns and verbs.
To the barricades! We have nothing to lose but our
Jill Severn's column appears semimonthly on Fridays on
the P-I Op-ed Page.
© 1994 Peter Langston