err, it's u - k - e - um, no, hang on a minute..
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Spelling Ukulele
by Donal Mahoney


Like many people today, Wally Przbylski works on a computer. For Wally, a computer looks like a typewriter attached to a television screen. It's a big improvement, however, over the Royal typewriter he worked on in the Fifties before a job change in the Sixties forced him to move to an IBM Selectric. As an editor, he was always on deadline and speed was important.

In the Eighties, a defense contractor hired Wally and he learned to edit on a Wang computer. His job was to copyedit technical prose written by engineers. The engineers wrote proposals to win contracts from the government. From Wally's point of view, the engineers were a strange lot.

The company's specialty was building missiles "to keep America safe," as Wally pointed out to his neighbors. At that time the company already had a missile they could put through then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's bedroom window. The problem was, Gaddafi slept in a different domicile every night. He was said to have many wives. A married man himself, Wally understood how separate domiciles might help to keep the peace in an extended family.

Wally was one of a small group of editors in this company of engineers. The nicest thing an engineer might call an editor was a "wordsmith" but editors were called "erasers" as well.

The engineers considered the editors unnecessary outsiders hired to mess with their copy before it was collated in notebooks, boxed up, put on a plane and sent to the Defense Department where proposals from different contractors were evaluated. Eventually contracts would be awarded. And if Wally's company won one of them, ecstasy ruled for half an hour. He figured half an hour was about as long as the engineers would waste on ecstasy.

"And what's with their pocket protectors," Wally asked another editor during a coffee break. "Every engineer has a pocket protector and wears a short-sleeved white shirt with a tie too short. Every pocket protector has a rainbow of different colored pens. How many pens do you need? And they think we're weird!"

Brilliant in math and science, the engineers had a problem writing grammatically correct sentences. Punctuation was a mystery to many of them and spelling was as well. Most of them didn't realize they had this deficiency. In fact, Wally told his wife one night that he didn't think these engineers thought they had any deficiencies.

"I don't think there's an introspective one in the bunch," Wally said. "Their minds are lost in math and science. Brilliant men but tough to work with if you aren't one of them."

Wally was a good editor whether the engineers appreciated that or not. He was quick to spot misspelled words and faulty punctuation. And he excelled at fixing garbled sentences the engineers had cast in the passive voice.

Wally's job was to install the active voice in their copy without changing the meaning of the text. This was not easy for an ignoramus in technology to do but Wally managed to do the job well. He knew the engineers liked the passive voice but the marketing department knew the active voice would help sell a missile system to the government.

"What do you know about science?" a miffed engineer asked Wally one day after accusing him of "raping" his copy.

"Statutory rape," Wally said. "You gave it to me."

"I had to give to you," the engineer said. "It was perfectly fine the way I wrote it."

That's when Wally asked him if he could spell ukulele.

"Spell what?"

"Ukulele," Wally said.

The engineer sputtered a bit and then actually came close to spelling it before stomping back to his desk. He missed by one letter--the "u" that comes after the "k."

"That's the letter they all miss," Wally told his wife that night. "They never get it right."

Following other derisive comments that would occur occasionally about his editing, Wally made it a practice to ask every vituperative engineer to spell ukulele. Almost to a man none of them could. The engineers were all male in those days since everyone knew that women typed well, didn't particularly like math or science, but made excellent coffee.

It was this job as a wordsmith in a company of engineers that led Wally to lay down the law with his daughters.

"Never marry a man who can't spell ukulele," he told them one day when both were still in the Girl Scouts, selling cookies.

Wally even told his wife that if one of his daughters ever wanted to marry an engineer, he would have her deported to Slovenia. Not that there was anything wrong with Slovenia but he knew no daughter of his would like it there. Not enough nice places to shop. Two engineers at his company were Slovenes and they complained inordinately about the lack of good retail outlets in their country.

Despite all of Wally's warnings, one daughter grew up and married a man who couldn't spell ukulele. As Wally points out to strangers now, she's divorced with a flock of kids who are great in math but abysmal in English. She may even have lupus and Wally suspects she might have caught this non-contagious disease from her former husband.

"At least he wasn't an engineer," Wally often reminds his wife.

The other daughter, however, followed Wally's advice. She is married to a poet who was able to spell ukulele. Wally asked the young man to spell the word when he came to the house to ask for the girl's hand in marriage. Wally gave his permission and is proud that the couple's seven children won spelling bees in grammar school but never got past algebra in high school. Each child would warn the sibling next in line about the dangers of geometry.

Wally is a somewhat happy man these days as retirement looms. Not one of his grandchildren so far has shown any interest in becoming an engineer. And just the other day, the youngest one asked him to teach her how to play the ukulele. Wally agreed but first he will have to take lessons. After all, the girl is only seven but already she can spell ukulele.



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