Marshmallow and Other Common Spelling Traps

By Maeve Maddox

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This sentence on a grammar site is intended to illustrate the use of the colon:

It is time for the baby’s birthday party: a white cake, strawberry-marshmellow ice cream, and a bottle of champagne saved from another party. (Joan Didion)

The use of the colon is fine, but a word is misspelled.

I wouldn’t swear that Joan Didion is the one responsible for the misspelling. The error could have occurred during transcription. Nevertheless, a great many people do misspell the word for that puffy white thing: marshmallow.

The confection got its name from a plant called a marshmallow. The roastable marshmallow was made originally from the mucilaginous root of the marshmallow plant.

Note: I got the word mucilaginous from the OED definition for the plant. Doesn’t sound like something I’d want to eat. Nowadays marshmallows get their puffiness from gelatin.

Here are some examples of other tricky words that may trip up otherwise competent spellers:

1. Wheelbarrow

Incorrect: I mow the lawn [and] dump the bag in a wheelbarrel to add to the compost.
Correct : I mow the lawn [and] dump the bag in a wheelbarrow to add to the compost.

One meaning of barrow that has been in the language for a very long time is “a utensil for carrying a load.” A barrow with a wheel attached is a wheelbarrow.

2. Cemetery

Incorrect: This is a beautiful cemetary to take a stroll through on a sunny Savannah day.
Correct : This is a beautiful cemetery to take a stroll through on a sunny Savannah day.

Incorrect: I’ve always found old cemetaries to be a peaceful spot for an afternoon walk.
Correct : I’ve always found old cemeteries to be a peaceful spot for an afternoon walk.

The trick to getting this word right is to remember that all three vowels are represented by the letter e. English cemetery comes via French from a Greek word that meant “a place to sleep,” like a dormitory. Early Christian writers were the first to make cemetery the usual word for a burial ground.

3. Dalmatian

Incorrect: Slick — the two-year-old Dalmation mascot of Charleston Fire Station 10 — is back where he belongs after a six-day disappearance.
Correct : Slick — the two-year-old Dalmatian mascot of Charleston Fire Station 10 — is back where he belongs after a six-day disappearance.

Historically, Dalmatia was a region in the vicinity of Croatia. The Dalmatian dog traces its roots to that region. To get the spelling right, note the three a’s.

4. German shepherd

Incorrect: For sale: pedigree german shephard puppies $500.
Correct : For sale: pedigree German shepherd puppies $500.

It seems to me that anyone selling puppies for $500 ought to be able to spell the name of the breed correctly. The AP Stylebook rule for capitalizing breed names is to capitalize only the part of the name that derives from a proper noun.

One reason people may have trouble with spelling the common noun shepherd is that the word has produced family names with a variety of spellings, such as ShepardSheppardShephard and Shepperd.

When spelling the name of the breed, the thing to remember is that the word shepherd is a combination of sheep + herd. A shepherd is a sheep herder. Think shep+herd.

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3 Responses to “Marshmallow and Other Common Spelling Traps”

  • Amber Polo

    The breed according to AKC is called the “German Shepherd Dog” (if the pups are purebred and eligible to be registered).
    Actually all dogs, etc., are pedigreed because they all have ancestors. Who the ancestors are is the question. They may have a chart or list of ancestors called a pedigree.

  • venqax

    Actually, I think the word *pedigree* means a record of decent, or recorded ancestry, So while all dogs, of course, have ancestors, if their ancestry is not recorded then they are by definition without a pedigree.

  • venqax

    I think wheelbarrel is one of those *tow-the-line mistakes* I’ve mentioned before that tends to stick because it actually makes sense; especially nowadays when people are probably more familiar with a barrel than they are with a barrow.

    I recall Mallow Pies, a popular brand of marshmallow-filled cookie-candyi-ish things when I was a kid. They are called Moon Pies in the South, Scooter Pies in other places or brands, but Mallow Pies helps as a spelling mnemonic. Just making random “contributions” LOL!

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