The other morning, I used the word “swathe” in an email to someone I don’t know and who I’d prefer didn’t think I was stupid.  I suspected I may not have spelled the word correctly, but my mail program didn’t throw squiggly lines at me about it so I left it. A few minutes later I was reading a blog post elsewhere which also used the word, only this time, spelled without the e. In a panic, I scrambled to the Google search window and entered it the way I’d spelled it.  Surely it meant some other terribly embarrassing thing, I thought to myself.  It was over for me as a person anyone could consider literate.

Mercifully, Merriam-Webster assured me in .10 seconds that it can be spelled either way. (Well, sort of.  It would be more accurate to say that one could get away with spelling it either way, for the meaning I had in mind.  Further research led me to conclude that swathe with an e has only come to mean the same thing as swath without an e, apparently because the two have original meanings close enough to let them just sort of meld together and get used interchangeably. The speed of the internet can be critical to ego maintenance, and yet, reader beware; more will often be revealed.)

Ironically, before I’d finished typing my search, Google’s drop-down menu predicted that what I was looking for was the name of an undergraduate institution which happens to be the one I attended, which happens to have a name spelled similarly to swath(e) and also happens to be frequently mispronounced and thus misspelled.  Also, once you’ve graduated from this institution and others like it, you might find yourself with an ever-so-slight tendency to expect yourself to know all words and never misspell any.  A tangled web, indeed.

One of the possible outcomes of a high-octane education is a probably unnecessary and potentially time and energy-wasting obsession with things like perfect spelling.  This is not to say that precision, and the quest for it, don’t have their place.  Only that it’s possible that there’s more available from life, and the rest is often getting displaced.

It reminded me of this passage from a book I was reading recently, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion:

“…our existing institutions have been organized around the proposition that economic value comes from protecting existing stocks of knowledge and efficiently extracting the value that these stocks of knowledge represent.  It’s not always easy for us as individuals to acknowledge that all those years of education may not be as helpful as we had hoped.”

The authors go on to describe what they call “creation spaces,” ecosystems of learning and development of ideas and practices that allow people to share in their pursuit of similar and related masteries.  “When people chase what they love, they will inevitably seek out and immerse themselves in knowledge flows, drinking deeply from new creative wells even as they contribute their own experience and insights along the way.”

I couldn’t help wondering what such a thing would look like on so many of us, young and old, who are spending great swaths of energy on the likes of better spelling.