The new arrival on Guam may find it unsettling to see misspelled words on official-type signs by the roadside. On the other hand, this one may leave them wondering whether the idea was to use the word ‘cute’ as a verb. ‘Bush cuting’ would then mean that the guys were doing their best to make the bushes as cute as possible.
Spelling does not appear to be a priority in the islands. Awhile back over on Rota, a restaurant put up a new neon sign — a pretty nice, expensive-looking thing — which gave the name of the place along with some of the good things they offered, including steaks and ‘whishky.’ The Scots and the Irish, while agreeing to drink lots of it, disagree on how to spell it, the Scots going for ‘whisky’ and the Irish adding the ‘e’, spelling it ‘whiskey.’ I like the Rotanese spelling best, though, because I think it captures nicely the way a lot of people pronounce it after having a few.
One does wonder, however, why no effort is made to do a quick spell-check before spending the money on a neon sign. Those who speak English as a second language can easily consult a first language-type — they’re all over the place — you can’t throw a dictionary in any direction without hitting one most of the time. Having said that, instead of throwing the dictionary, why not consult it, in print or online — it’s easy and can be done in seconds. But it isn’t.
Some may think that it has something to do with education. We may look at signs like this one, which tells us that the tank holds ‘500 galloons’ of something, and say that one cannot expect serious, hardened working men who construct and install these tanks to be expected to spell correctly.
The problem is not only with spelling. Consider the sign that warns potential trespassers in one part of the island. It reads: “This area is patrolled by military working dog teems.” The concerned citizen will notice first the word ‘teems.’ However, there are other difficulties in this warning, having to do not only with spelling, but also with the way these words are being used.
First of all, if the dogs are military, what are they doing working away from the base? One also cannot help but wonder why the sign reader is told that the dogs are working. We have already been told that they are on patrol, which is surely work. Of course there is also the question of whether dogs can really patrol at all without human guidance. To patrol means “to make a regular and repeated circuit in guarding, etc.” Can dogs do that? If they did, I’d like to go and watch. That, of course, would defeat the whole purpose of the dog patrol, which is to keep people away.
The biggest question, however, is this notion of the dogs working as a team — or teem. (‘Teem’ is of course a verb which means to abound or swarm, as in ‘a river teeming with fish.’) The only dogs I’ve ever seen do that are the sled dogs of Alaska, and they have to be tied to each other and compelled to work as a team.
The newcomer to the island needs to anticipate spelling errors while shopping. This sign, for instance, in a Guam grocery store, could have him believing he is buying that rarest of delicacies, the crab craw. I say it is the rarest because it doesn’t exist. A craw is a “saclike enlargement of a bird’s gullet in which food is stored before digestion.” Birds have craws, but crabs don’t. Crabs don’t even have gullets to have craws in, as far as I know.
Of course, the grocer might mean definition number two for this word ‘craw’: “The stomach of any animal.” So it is possible that the unsuspecting new resident may go home expecting a delightful meal of crab stomachs, only to find himself a disappointed victim of poor spelling, who must resign himself to a dinner of common crab claws.
What shall we conclude? Is a campaign to improve spelling on the island called for? I wouldn’t recommend it. The signs are getting the job done as they are, and in fact are accomplishing a second job which may be even more important than the original one: providing much-needed entertainment, thus helping us to get through the long, hot days in the tropics.
About the Guam Gumshoe
Peter Denman, originally from Houston, moved to Rota from Texas in 1996, to Chuuk in 1998, and to Guam in 2001. In addition to scuba diving and amateur radio, he spends quite a bit of time observing and trying to understand the many interesting things which go on in the islands. His wife Tanya, who is from Jamaica, has no problem understanding island ways. He feels he has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the islands, but also feels that he has an even longer way to go to understand Texas.