A Word for Wednesday: Spell

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This week’s 'Word for Wednesday' is‘spell’. The Oxford Dictionary gives a grand total of four different definitions for this word. A reminder of how important context is to the meaning of many words, and why the English language can be so confusing to learn.

Since we’re a spelling website let’s start with the most obvious definition; Spell as a verb means to write or name the letters that form a word in the correct sequence. ‘I wish you would learn to spell’.

The second definition is a little more archaic, one of spell’s noun definitions is a charm or incantation – a set of words, which supposedly have magical powers. Uses of the word ‘spell’ in this context date as far back as the 1500s.

In a third and lesser-used context, the word ‘spell’ refers to a splinter of wood. Personally, I’ve only ever heard this one in reference to a small (yet painful) splinter trapped in the skin after handling wood; however a little research revealed a much better use for a ‘spell’ of wood…

From the 15th to the 19th century, ‘Knurr and Spell’ was a popular pub game originating in Yorkshire where a ‘spell’ of wood was used as a bat to strike the ‘knurr (a piece of gnarl from a tree trunk), which acted as a ball. The knurr was propelled from a trap and later a spring mechanism to ensure regularity of height, similar to clay pigeon shooting. Players then competed to hit the knurr the greatest distance. Sounds fun to me, a revival anyone?

In its final context, ‘spell’ describes a fairly short period of time. For example, one can do a spell of work over summer. We might experience a spell of rain or endure a spell of hay fever. Hopefully this week’s blog has been enlightening, if only into the bizarre customs of Yorkshire pub goers. We’d love to see some pictures of a game of ‘Knurr and Spell’!

Hugh MacDermott


26 Jun 2013
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"I have just subscribed and look forward to continuing to use Spellzone. I have been really impressed with the program during the trial period and the students gave very positive feedback. Many thanks."

Teacher, International School, Geneva