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Easy to Say, But Hard to Spell

by Eric Shackle

If any of your family or friends fancy themselves as good spellers, ask them to spell these three U.S. place names: Cincinnati, Massachusetts and Mississippi. The words have a pleasant rhythm, but spelling them is a nightmare for many of us.

If your spellers survive the test, challenge them with this clincher: "Spell a city in Arizona that's called TOO-sahn or too-SAHN."

Let's deal with these four places one at a time. We've composed a few simple rhymes to help with the spelling.

CINCINNATI

Cincinnati, Ohio, once described as The Queen City, is commonly called Porkopolis – possibly because thousands of its citizens can't spell its name correctly.

Internet search engine Google lists thousands of Web pages which misspell the name:

  • Cincinatti (56,000)
  • Cincinati (11,000)
  • Cincinnatti (18,700)
  • Cinncinati (5,880)
  • Cinncinnati (5,380)
  • Cinncinatti (2,000)
  • Cinncinnatti (414)
  • Sinsinati (97)
  • Sinsinatti (32)
Cincinnati is Ohio's third largest city, after Cleveland and Columbus. It's the hub of a seven-county, three-state metropolitan area that includes parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Abigail Marie Miller, a 20-year-old student of Northern Kentucky University, in an amusing online diary, wrote that she lived in Kentucky, but was only seven minutes south of Cincinnati. "Basically, I get all the perks of living near a big city without having to be a Buckeye," she said.

"You know what also tweaks me the wrong way? When people spell Cincinnati wrong. Jeez. Everyone knows how to spell Massachusetts or even Mississippi because of that stupid song. Why don't we get a song?"

Travel writer Bill Bryson in his book I'm a Stranger Here Myself recalled: "I even got a job on the strength of it once when, in a moment of youthful audacity, I asserted to a managing editor of the London Times that I would be the only person on his staff who could reliably spell Cincinnati. (And it was so)."

How Cincinnati got its name is a long story. Columbia, Ohio's first settlement, was founded in 1788. Another settlement was laid out and called Losantiville. Fort Washington was built near the site in 1789.

In the following year, General Arthur St. Clair, the newly appointed governor of the Northwest Territory, came to the town, and renamed it to honor the Revolutionary War Officers' Society of the Cincinnati, which some 2,000 officer veterans of the U.S. War of Independence had formed in 1783 for patriotic purposes and to provide pensions for its members.

The Society was named in honor of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (born about 519 BC), a Roman general, statesman and farmer.

By 1854, Cincinnati had become one of the largest cities in the United States. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called it Queen. But at the same time, the city was also known as a pork-packing center and was unkindly called Porkopolis, as it is to this day.

To remember how to spell the city's name, memorize this little rhyme:

Cincinnati is a word
Hard to spell but easy heard.
It need not cause you irritation,
Just drop the ON from CIN CIN NATION.

Or:

The Ns and Ts are simply done
When written down as 1-2-1.

MASSACHUSETTS

Thousands of people around the world have trouble spelling Massachusetts. "I can't spell it without using that song" some say, while Google has thousands of references to misspellings of the name:
  • Massachussetts (44,100)
  • Massachussets (43,700)

It's not a new problem that you can blame on the Internet. Nearly 150 years ago, popular author Horatio Alger wrote in Cousin John (first published 1856): "Ida ... was next asked to spell Massachusetts, which the squire allowed to pass unquestioned, probably because he did not feel quite certain about it himself."

The solution? Memorize one of these couplets:

"Massachusetts is tricky," the teacher confesses,
"Just remember to spell it with two tees and four esses."

Or:

The simple answer to this little riddle: Two esses, two tees, with one ess in the middle.

MISSISSIPPI

Faced with the next-to-impossible problem of spelling Mississippi, millions of people around the English-speaking world fall back on that venerable children's rhyme:

M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I
Crooked letter-crooked letter-I
humpback-humpback-I.

Others recite:

Mrs M, Mrs I, Mrs Double S I,
Mrs Double S I, Mrs Double P I.

Even then, thousands of folk don't know how to spell the word correctly. On the Internet, Google lists an amazing 208,000 pages misspelt as Mississipi (with one p).

The single-p advocates go back nearly three centuries, as an 1718 French map in the Library of Virginia is entitled Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi. Maybe that was the correct spelling in those days.

To spell the State's name correctly, remember these lines:

Four simple words will get you by:
What you'll never MISS IS SIP PI.

TUCSON

Tucson in arid Arizona, not only has trouble spelling its name, but its citizens can't even agree on how to pronounce it – it's either too-SAHN or TOO-sahn, says its official website. In the Wild West's early days, Tucson citizens had trouble spelling the town's name. Today, despite better education, thousands of Americans face similar difficulties. Google lists 50,800 pages misspelling the name as Tuscon.

Tucson (pop. 483,533) is one of the oldest towns in the United States, having been continuously settled for more than 12,000 years. "It celebrates a diversity of cultures, architecture, and peoples," it tells Internet visitors. "Yet it is one of the 'mega-trend' cities of the 21st century: the Optics Valley, premier health services center for the Southwest, the astronomy center of the world, home of a premier research institution – University of Arizona – and a tourism destination.

"Tucson was originally an Indian village called Stook-zone, meaning water at the foot of black mountain."

How can you learn to spell Tucson? Perhaps you could memorize one of these rhymes:

Remember well, to save confusion
C before S when spelling TUCSON.

Or this one:

When spelling Tucson you must get
C before S as in the alphabet.

Or even, as a last resort:

Let's put an end to all this confusion.
We can't tell the difference 'tween Tuscan and Tucson.
The best way to end typographical stress
Is to remember to put the C before S.

© 2003 Eric Shackle (eshackle@ozemail.com.au).
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

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