Issue: November 2006
FROM THE EDITOR: Spelling Counts



The problem isn't that the stories contain bits of Smith's own convoluted prose and the kind of slipshod spelling that was acceptable, like biscuit weevils, in his time. Karolyn is probably as amused as the next person when Smith tells of his meetings with the "gyant-like" natives or other "Occurences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia." After all, we put those bits in quotes, making it clear to the reader that we recognize the shortcomings of gems like "generall historie" and "good deedes and badde."

The problem, rather, comes mostly with the names of rivers, places and tribes. That is, when we're not directly quoting the lexicographically challenged Smith, how do we render a word that has as many variants as it has unnecessary letters? To be perfectly fair about it, Smith was transliterating on the fly. We suppose that when a very large man with several weapons, a freaky haircut, and a dead beaver hanging from his belt says he is a "Sasquesahanock," you don't ask him how to spell it; you just write down what you heard and move on to "Please don't kill us. We come in peace, sort of."

So that's how we got "Sasquesahanock," in Smith's text, at least. On his famous map of "Chesapeack Bay," he spells it differently--three different ways, in fact: "Sasqusahanough," "Sasquesahanough" and "Sasquesahanoug." Granted, those vary only by one or two letters, and a reasonable person might ask why we'd get all worked up over a couple of silly letters. And the answer is . . . well, we just do. We're word geeks.

It did occur to us, of course, that we could avoid the problem altogether by always using the modern-day spelling--Susquehanna, Patuxent and Potomac, even if Smith rendered them as "Sasquesahanock," "Pawtuxunt" and "Patawomeck." But that approach has its own problems: many of the names on Smith's map have long since been replaced. The "Bolus" is now the Patapsco, the "Tockwogh" is the Sassafras, and the "Powhatan" is the James. And, in this context, it just seemed wrong somehow to standardize spellings 400 years after the fact. It would be like altering Smith's very portrait, shaving his beard and dressing him in a polo shirt and eight-wale cords. Trivial or not, it would be historical revisionism at the elemental level, tinkering with the very words of an eyewitness account. Exploring, after all, isn't just about finding things; it's about naming them on behalf of your own culture.

So, with the help of quotation marks and a few parenthetical explanations, we've done our best to preserve the good captain's exact words. We're sure he'd appreciate that. And we're surer still that he and a certain sharp-eyed proofreader would not get along very well.