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to spell somebody, as in "Give me the shovel, I'll spell you a while."
"spell" used as a verb to mean 'to take over' (some work) temporarily (for a short time) in place of another (discussed on "Way with Words" August 17, 2014)
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“to spell” is used as a verb to mean ‘to take over’ (some work) temporarily (for a short time) in place of another person. This use of “spell” is related to the noun “spell” meaning a duration of time.

This is still commonly used in Texas (though probably more common among older people), I do not know how regional it is.

It is most often used when doing some manual work that needs to be continued or maintained without undue delay or pause. Usually it is when it involves some work that can only be done by one person at a time. You spell someone for a few minutes so they can have a rest or do something else.


1. There’s several people, but only one hole to be dug (or only one shovel).

2. Only one sink, but lots of dishes to wash.  

3. In a two-oar rowboat (which can only be rowed by one person at a time), when one person gets tired, another person will spell her (“Let me spell you a while”).

The more common use of “spell” that is related to time, is as a noun meaning “a duration of time”. It is common to hear people say, “We sat a spell on the porch”, or “We had a long dry spell in the spring.” meaning it didn’t rain for an unusually long period of time.

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Random House calls this spell3, and has 7 definitions for the noun.  I knew 6 of them as a kid, including one they say is Australian, so  I guess I grew u[ in the Aussie part of Ohio. They have two transitive verbs, including one Aussie.  The definitions I do not find familiar are an archaic noun, a person or set of persons taking a turn of work to relieve anotherand the intransitive verb to have or take a rest periodSeems to me you spell someone else, or you sit a spell, but you don’t spell. 

Soell1 (as in c-a-r) and spell2 (as in bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) seem to have different origins.  Collins dictionary says spell3 came from Scottish; there is a lot of Scottish in my childhood vocables, if that means anything.  We didn’t ever use breather except in mechanics, but we mostly used spell in relieving someone, (or as a spell of asthma. etc).  When we took a break, the job stopping while we did so, we’d light and set. (lght as in alight, not in firing up a fag.)_Light and sit would be redundant; we set like a banty.

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@ deaconB: “Seems to me you spell someone else, or you sit a spell, but you don’t spell.”

That’s how ‘spell’ (noun) and ‘to spell somebody’ (transitive verb) is used around here. The use of ‘to spell somebody’ always has a person (or personal pronoun- him, you, me, etc.) as the direct object.

‘Spell’ (noun) as in “We sat (for) a spell” is more or less interchangeable with “while”, except that ‘while’ can be used for much longer periods of time than ‘spell’ can.

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