Why have words always fascinated me?

My clients often call me ‘Eagle-eyed Hazel’ because I can spot an error a mile away. The thing is I’ve always been like that.

For some reason I was good at spelling at school. It may have been because I had a very good English teacher whose lessons were never boring. We had an imaginary medieval village in our classroom with a church, a village green and a big house where the Lord of The Manor lived. It was quite magical.

We had a lesson – I think it must have been once a week – when we wrote an essay about one of the people who lived in the village, or one of the houses, or a special day during the year. We were encouraged to let our imaginations roam and see what ideas and descriptions we could summon from the ends of our pencils.

Once we had written our fill, our jotters were collected and carried off by the teacher. They would be returned a couple of days later when our teacher would talk about what we had written, pointing out interesting flights of fancy along with the most common errors. I loved the whole thing and I think that must have instilled a fascination with words which has lasted my whole life. I used to write short plays and then condemn my long-suffering parents and my brother to act as an audience while I presented my latest play. Inevitably it would be about kings and queens, princesses, fairy folk and, of course, cats. And I played all the characters.

The first sign of an interest in studying words themselves came when I must have been about six or seven. My father was an elder of the Church of Scotland so most Sundays we went to Church in the centre of Edinburgh. I found the whole experience rather tedious. I didn’t really understand what it was all about but I noticed that it didn’t take long every week for the minister to begin chastising the congregation for their sins. I always thought that was unfair. I hadn’t been up and dressed for very long so when did I have time for all these misdemeanours? I’m reminded of a friend’s description of a church service that she went to on one of the inner Hebrides islands while visiting the area. There were perhaps eight to ten adults in the congregation, mostly aged 70 and over. The rest of those present were children under the age of ten. The sermon was given over entirely to a stinging diatribe on the subject of adultery and, looking around her, my friend failed to see who it was that could have committed this crime.

In the church that I went to with my family, there was large phrase painted on the wall behind the minister. It said ‘Lo, I am with you alway’. Every week I would puzzle over this. As I’ve said, I was good at spelling so I knew that it should have read ‘I am with you always’ with an ‘s’ on the end of ‘alway’. Why didn’t it have that ‘s’? Had no one else noticed? The church dated from the 1840s, I think, so this obvious error had been there for some time. As, by this time, we would be deep into the sermon, I couldn’t ask anyone beside me. All I could do was suck on the pan drop that had been secretly passed from my mother’s pocket to my eager hand as the minister started to speak.

I suppose I must, eventually, have found out that it was a quote from The Bible and had accepted that if that was how the compilers of the King James Bible wanted to spell ‘always’, who was I to object? As far as I know nobody lost their head over this 17th century ‘typo’ and having just Googled it on my 21st century desktop, I’m very pleased to find that ‘alway’ was how it appeared in the King James Bible published in 1611. So I didn’t dream it or make it up; I just worried over it and it must have taught me to read everything carefully and to notice the absence of one ‘s’. 

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