The Personal Morphologies Above a Squiggle: On Nic Wilson’s Learn Spelling

Learn Spelling was published by Umbrella Projects in 2021

Interior of Learn Spelling by Nic Wilson, Umbrella Projects

Starting with the second season, DVD boxed sets of the series Gilmore Girls included a printed glossary of “Gilmore-isms” that explained the pop-cultural references made by the characters. I would watch, pamphlet in hand, diligently attempting to be in on every quip. However, I quickly discovered that the pamphlet was meant to supplement an assumed baseline of cultural knowledge. Its selective way of highlighting my naïveté led me to abandon it nearly entirely and I resumed watching the show for pleasure rather than study.

I found myself reflecting on this experience while reading Nic Wilson’s new book, Learn Spelling. Part autotheory and part art object, Learn Spelling conceptually begins and physically ends with that which lives outside of the main prose: the glossary. Wilson’s project began from a happenstantially collected personal archive of proper nouns and other words not recognized by the word processor Pages

Within the transgressive mini-events of a red squiggle appearing under the heel of newly typed words, Wilson saw merit in the dissonance between personalized knowledge and machine-learning. In 2015, they began keeping a record of abject words as they appeared underlined on the screen. I find myself imagining that the appearance of the red squiggle, something that might be otherwise irritating, became a thrilling new friend, the error now revised as an opportunity. The resulting book exists as an artist-contrived glossary of these terms, architecturally woven through a text examining their significance, be it culturally, artistically, regionally, or personally niche.

Like the experience of receiving the “Gilmore-isms” pamphlet with my DVD purchase, I find myself holding my copy of Learn Spelling and facing an internal dilemma as to what kind of participant I’d like to be as I experience the object for the first time. I nearly started at the back of the book, tempted by the Glossary’s offer to have me arrive at the text as an informed reader, with no meaning lost. Instead, I decided to approach as an imperfect reader. I’d done it when watching Gilmore Girls and every time I’ve interacted with cultural mediums since. The existence of a glossary is particularly seductive to me because it tempts me with a hegemonic fantasy that a perfect reader could, or should, exist.

By offering its supposed neutrality in helping the writer produce a clean text, void of squiggles and smoothed of personal, social, and cultural histories, the word processor’s specific presentation of this fantasy only reinforces existing hierarchies. Though aesthetically tidy, such documents regulate, for example, Indigenous language in order to console the colonial project of Canada, thus delegitimizing community-defined languages that resist algorithms in the process.

A glossary of terms accounts for an assumed baseline of understood cultural significance. As a tool, it does this in what is left out and what is deemed specialized knowledge requiring definition, generating a shared pool of co-signed terms that build trust among peers and funders. Developing a personal glossary and employing it as a story-telling device rather than a tool of one-dimensional authority is a refreshing ode to regional slippages, personal connections, and the time spent second guessing the spellings of morphological derivations in language.

Learn Spelling pokes and prods at the reader’s imposed bias of language. As I searched to define my personal fixation on Wilson’s glossary of terms, I learned a new word: sycophantic. I spelt it wrong on my first try.

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