A millennium is a millenium is a milennium

There are many soaring hopes for the new millennium. I have a rather humble one: that we learn to spell the word correctly. Unfortunately, in the Scrabble Game of Life, there is an apparent shortage of N's.

I recall an exchange with a decorated television producer who was developing a documentary on the dawn of the 20th century. Somewhat surprisingly, the program proposal had been rebuffed several times. Finally this producer, a fastidious Yale graduate, handed me the proposal's cover letter. And there it was, in the opening paragraph: "Due to the surge of interest in the millenium [sic], this program is guaranteed to reach a substantial viewership...."

When I alerted the producer to the error, she was utterly dumbfounded, as if told by a reliable source that the sun had been extinguished.

"No. Really? That can't be." She consulted the dictionary and made the correction.

That was more than two years ago. Since then, upon encountering the M-word in newspaper articles or any other published text, I shift involuntarily into proofreading mode.

Glossy catalog covers, large playbills, classical music recordings, expensive advertisements, all going where no copy editor has gone before. The Millenium [sic].

On the brighter side, I can report that the word is spelled correctly at least half the time. But, yes, that does still mean a failing grade on any spelling test.

How has this word managed to bring us to our knees? The simplest answer is we haven't had enough practice with it. Ten years ago few people thought about the millennium, let alone spelled it. The last time Anglophone peoples had to worry about spelling "millennium," or the Old English antecedent, it was the Dark Ages. Literacy rates were worse than they are even now.

Maybe we're watching too much TV, hearing words rather than reading them. Or maybe we're just watching the wrong kind of TV. A daily viewing of Wheel of Fortune would probably do us all some good. "Is there an N?," I can hear the contestant ask. "Yes. There is one," Pat Sajak would respond, as Vanna turns the lonely consonant.

Perhaps our lives are too rushed to be bothered with such quaint pastimes as spelling. The World Wide Web hasn't helped much either. When hurtling down the information superhighway, does anyone really have time to notice spelling? A targeted search for the errant "millenium" through a popular Web portal tells all: 93,494 hits.

Considering such staggering evidence, some would say my millennial hopes are vain. Nothing is impossible, though. Remember 1989? The Berlin Wall crumbled. Autocracy was vanquished. Democracy was victorious. And scores of people, all over the world, learned to spell "Uzbekistan."

Doomsayers, however, would scoff. The millennium is just a tough pop-quiz, they'd say. The final exam is near! Such is the darker side of millennialism.

And even though doomsday forecasts about the end of the world are absurd, the proofreader in me shudders at the thought. One can only imagine the headlines: "Acopalypse [sic] Imminent; GOP Faults Clinton's 'bridge to the 21st Century.' "

Thankfully, we needn't fear such apocalyptic fiction. However, we'd do well to guard against a more insidious prospect: the end of the written word as we know it.

*Stephen Lapointe is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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