Use of term "Spell me"

Discussion in 'Veteran Accounts' started by Ron Goldstein, Nov 27, 2015.

  1. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    My daughter just heard me using the phrase "Spell me" to someone and confessed that although she understood what I was saying she caught an air of bewilderment on the face of the other party.

    She further wondered whether the phrase was of military significance.

    I went on line and found this:

    When I was growing up in Virginia many years ago, it was fairly common to hear the word "spell" used as a synonym for "relieve" or "take over temporarily". For example, a man working at a job might ask a co-worker to relieve him temporarily by asking, "Can you spell me while I get a drink?"
    As I recall, the usage was not limited to either black or white dialect.
    I mentioned this usage recently and was surprised to find that none of the people I was with (in Florida) had ever heard the word used in this manner.
    There was no mention of this usage in the on line Webster's dictionary.
    I seem to remember its use by William Faulkner as well, a master of both black and white southern dialect, but I can't be sure. Has anyone else heard of "spell" used in this manner? Thanks.

    Anyone one else uses this phrase ?

    dbf likes this.
  2. Trux

    Trux 21 AG


    It certainly appears in nautical writings. A spell on watch. A spell at the wheel. I have always taken it to mean a rota rather just a temporary relief. I have also seen/heard it as 'I did a spell in India' etc. Same sort of usage.

  3. SDP

    SDP Incurable Cometoholic


    This seems to answer your question. I found it by Googling 'define: spell'

    verb: spell; 3rd person present: spells; past tense: spelled; past participle: spelled; gerund or present participle: spelling
    allow (someone) to rest briefly by taking their place in an activity.
    "I got sleepy and needed her to spell me for a while at the wheel"
    take a brief rest.
    "I'll spell for a bit"
  4. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Mike's 'spell' as a noun is still very common, but I confess that I've never heard it used as a verb as Ron has it. For reference, I was born at the tail end of the 70s.
  5. toki2

    toki2 Junior Member

  6. Dave55

    Dave55 Atlanta, USA

    That's the way I've always heard it used in the US but it seems to be falling into disuse now.
  7. idler

    idler GeneralList

    +1 for Mike. I've always understood 'spell' to be an unspecified period of time. However, I must have picked up the verb version somewhere as it didn't jar too much.

    Inspired by those later examples, perhaps the usage is best illustrated by "Can you spell me for a spell?"
  8. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    My Grandfather was a pre-war (and wartime) regular and Dad was a 'Duration of Emergency' call up. Both regularly used military expressions when I was growing up but I don't recognise this one...I suspect my response would be "Spell what?".

    In much the same way, I have to fight the inclination to reply to "My bad" with "Your bad what ?"
  9. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Old Hickory Recon

    Usage is fairly common in the area of the Southern US where I live.
  10. tmac

    tmac Senior Member

    In the late 1960s, I had a holiday job on the production line at the Lever's soap factory in Port Sunlight, Merseyside. It involved endlessly lifting boxes off a conveyor belt and stacking them on pallets, ready to be taken away by fork lift trucks.

    Getting someone else to 'spell' you from this tedious labour was a common expression between the workers ('Okay, go and have a smoke - I'll spell you for ten minutes.').

    I'd never previously heard 'spell' used as a verb, but it seemed perfectly logical. If I'd thought about it, I'd have said it was a local usage, so I'm interested to hear it is fairly common in the Southern U.S. Maybe it filtered over to Merseyside from there. Or vice-versa.
  11. DavidW

    DavidW Well-Known Member

    It would appear that particular usage is solely North American. At least according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    See here..

    I would paste a link but this is proving impossible.
  12. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    Cannot say that I ever heard this phrase used personally, but seem to recollect hearing it on some old war movies.

  13. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

    I don't recognise the verbish use either, but it's cited here as a very old usage, 1590s:

    "spell (v.2)
    "work in place of (another)," 1590s, earlier spele, from Old English spelian "to take the place of, be substitute for, represent," related to gespelia "substitute," of uncertain origin. Perhaps related to spilian "to play" (see spiel). Related: Spelled; spelling."
  14. AB64

    AB64 Senior Member

    I know on some of the production lines at my work they employ "spellers" who basically cover the production lines when people need to go to the toilet or when they go in small groups for lunch or breaks.

  15. Sapper D.

    Sapper D. Member

    We used the word 'spel' in the army, in the '80's.
    Meant taking over someone's (tedious mostly) task for a short while.

    i.e. "Take me over for a spell on the Tirfor jack, will you?"
  16. Richard G

    Richard G Junior Member

    take a brief rest.
    "I'll spell for a bit"

    "take a spell mate", "your turn to have a spell at the (steering) wheel", "I'm buggered, going to have a spell". Not used much these days.
  17. rockape252

    rockape252 Senior Member


    I remember the phrase "Sit (set) a spell" in the intro to the 60's TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies"

    Regards, Mick D.
  18. Doc

    Doc Senior Member

    Growing up in Texas and Georgia (too long ago), this was a common usage, even in the verb form.
  19. archivist

    archivist Well-Known Member

    This was an expression used by my father in exactly the same way that Ron Goldstein described. Dad was from Guernsey but a soldier at the same time as Ron. I really don't think grammatical use or dictionary definitions will give you the answer. I believe that this is a phrase that was contrived and used a lot in that specific period and the vernacular usage does not rely on dictionary definitions or anything else. Pretty much the same as kids today saying "wicked" when they really mean "wonderful"
  20. Puttenham

    Puttenham Well-Known Member

    Nowadays, for the most part, young people can't spell words OR spell people. ;)


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