I downloaded an app to track my downhill skiing a little while ago. Good app; tells me how many runs I did, how far, maximum speed, maximum pitch, maps it all out. It had a bonus hidden in it, too, a little gem: in the user instructions, it had the word schrol.

I bet you’ve never seen that word before. Wonder what it’s doing in the user guide for a skiing app? Well, here it is in context: “select the device and then select the Apps tab and schrol down until you see the File Sharing section…”

Got it now?

“Aw,” you may be saying. “It’s just a misspelling of scroll.” Yes, that’s true. But tell me: if you speak any languages other than English, in how many of them are you likely to get a misspelling that is less phonetic than the correct spelling?

English spelling isn’t so much a system as a bricolage. It’s like making a picture not by drawing or painting lines, not by taking basic pieces and putting them together, but by clipping bits from magazines and books and pasting them together. And because it’s so weird, we often come to assume that the less phonetic spelling is the correct one if we’re not sure. That’s how kneck has come to be seen as a spelling of neck.

Admit it: if they spelled scroll as skrol or scrol, you might wonder where they went to school, even though those are more phonetic. But if you see schrol you can tell they went to school – not the place, the word: just swap in an r for the first o.

It’s not that there are any English words with schr pronounced [skr]. The sch in all those cases goes the other way, the German way, the “sh” sound. But words like scherzo (Italian) and schizophrenia (from Greek roots) and the occasional Dutch name have given us a chance to make a [sk] with sch, and so there it is: extra letter, less obvious spelling, must be better. At the same time, to make it schrol, they went with a single l, which is actually more phonetic. Why would they do that?

Well, there’s school, yes. Anything else? If you Google schrol, you’ll get some pictures of shiny black tourmaline, even some ebay listings selling pieces of this semi-precious stone. There’s a variety of it called schrol, you see.

Well, called schrol by people who misspell it, I should say. It’s actually schorl. And it’s pronounced like “shorl.” The word comes from German schörl, and it’s not clear where German got it from, but it’s probably after a village (and then we have to wonder where the village got its name).

It’s a fitting stone to go with this lapidary misspelling. The chemical formula of schorl is NaFe2+3Al6Si6O18(BO3)3(OH)3OH.

Isn’t it nice how that ends with “OH OH”? What you say when you see this. It’s about as complicated as… well, English spelling. You have accumulated bits and dirt and so on all hardened together, and embedded in the middle of it as you dig on down, the result of many obscure elements combining to produce something expected, is this dark gem. Exactly the same sort of thing happens with schorl tourmaline.

Fine, you don’t have to like it; you don’t have to be a nerd about schrol. But it scrolls my nurd. (Not that I’m going to use it. I’ll just put it in my gem box.)

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