Several amusing answers came in when we asked readers to pick the words on the page above that would not appear in an elementary-school spelling book today. (Do children learn to spell in elementary school today? Dr. Boli has not been in elementary school for some time, so he is perhaps ignorant of current educational theory.)

For what it may be worth, this is Dr. Boli’s own list, along with his explanation of why he thinks each word would be excluded from current spelling books:

Fag, because children use that word all day and teachers are sick of hearing it.

Cag, which turns out to be an obsolete variant of keg.

Hag, because we prefer not to teach our children more colorful insults for their teachers than the ones they already know.

Wen, because the proofreaders would assume it was a misspelling for when.

Cit, an insulting term used of townsmen by country people; no longer heard now that everyone lives in the suburbs.

Wit: an obsolete term.

Wed: obsolete, because our aversion to monosyllabic language has caused it to be replaced in all usages by marry, although we still happily use the form wedding, which has two syllables.

Fop: obsolete, because for the past two hundred years (with a brief interruption in the age of Oscar Wilde) men have not cared enough about clothes to be fops.

Milt, because children might ask what it means and have to be told to shut up.

Gilt, because a proofreader would correct it to guilt.

Smut, because the metaphorical use has entirely replaced the literal.

Slut, because the meaning has shifted subtly over the years.

Chub, because it would be taken for the insult rather than the fish.

Flog and drub, because teachers are no longer allowed to do those things to children and do not wish to be reminded of the fact.

Some of the obsolete terms, such as wed, are kept tenuously alive by journalism-school graduates who, rather than use the same word twice in an article, will ransack the thesaurus for synonyms. But these words would almost certainly be excluded from a children’s spelling book.

There are also many other terms that are unlikely to appear because they are seldom used today: shad, drab (which has been almost entirely replaced by the real-estate agent’s term neutral decor), jilt, and brad, for example. But these words would probably raise no serious objections if they did appear.

The book, by the way is Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book, the ninetieth edition (Webster spells that “nintieth”), published in 1816.


  1. The word “glut” should also be excluded from spelling books, for it might lead to “gluttony” — not to the deadly sin itself, of course, but to an unfortunate labeling of those differently-sized to whom the application of such a term would prove so deadly to self-esteem.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. C. Simon says:

    Hey, I got a word that’s really useful and frequently misspelled. I think my word might win because, first of all, the common misspelling is (inexplicably) very different than the true spelling. I mean very, very different. As in not even consisting of the same alphabet. And second of all, I think the frequency of misspelling has got to be 20% or more. Do you know what word I’m thinking of? Okay, now try it yourself, go search for the misspelling “you stupid %^&*” and then the correct spelling—wait, this just in: a source tells me this word is not misspelled, it is actually censored. Okay now I’m going to go learn the difference between misspelled and censored, maybe it’s important.

  3. raf says:

    @C.Simon: You are correct in your nomination for most frequently misspelled word, as %^&* should actually be spelled #^(%, although some more modern spellers have suggested $&#*.

  4. Martha says:

    For those children from an agricultural or rural background, as I was myself, they may be more likely to think of the meaning “young female pig” for “gilt” than the “thin layer of precious metal” meaning.

    That also means they probably would not need the meaning of “milt” explained to them, but they might have to explain it to their teachers, and indeed that would be a reason for dropping the word.

    I don’t know if children still learn spelling in primary school; I still remember the small red spelling book we used, but that was back in the 1970s.

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