At some point in the last few days I was writing about spelling, and a thought recurred to me: is it a coincidence that the verb to spell (as in, How do you spell that word?), and the noun spell (as in magic spell) are identical?
This time I’ve decided to pursue this line of inquiry, and the answer is basically: No, it’s not just a coincidence!
Spell as a noun first appeared in Old English meaning a story or saying, gradually coming to mean more specifically a spoken remark by the early 13th century. By the 16th century, it had come to refer to a set of words with magical power.
As a verb, to spell appeared in the 14th century, originally meaning to read letter by letter (like what we now mean by to spell out). Over time this came to mean more generally how to write a word. It’s easy enough to see how these two meanings share a common origin, both linked by the concept of saying something out loud, before they diverged, and the verb became more associated with writing than speaking. (As a verb, there’s also probably an influence from the Old French espelier, meaning signify or explain)
Not that they’re so different though. Both are still very much about the power and meaning of words. You can’t be sure of a word’s exact meaning unless it’s spelled correctly, and it therefore can only be guaranteed to be used to its full potential when all its letters are in the right order. Equally, a magic spell doesn’t work if you don’t use the right words, spoken correctly. In fact, what is a magic spell if not simply a word or words spoken correctly, just as good spelling involves writing a word correctly. Would Harry Potter’s spells work if he didn’t shout out the right incantation?
Spelling’s not the most important thing in the world, and it’s certainly not everyone’s forte (even Shakespeare never spelled his name the same way). Still, it’s worth considering that without spelling them correctly, you may not fully unleash the awesome power of words!