When The President Tried to Change the Way Americans Spell


Shooting Holes In The Dictionary

Taking Aim at Mr. Webster

Andrew Carnegie's Legacy Lives in Today's Libraries

On This Date In History: Back in 1906, Andrew Carnegie thought that if English was made more simple, it could become the dominant language in the world.   In an effort to try and simplify the spelling and writing of English, he funded the Simplified Spelling Board which was made up of a group of intellectuals who would discuss the issue.  The Board had 26 members including Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, US Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage and Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain.  The board determined that there many words that could easily be changed; such words like “ghost” could be made simpler by dropping the silent “h.”  Words like “blessed” could be reconfigured as “blest” and certainly the “u” could be dropped in words such as “behaviour,” “colour” and “honour.”  They had enough of “enough” and decided that “enuf” would do just fine.   The board did not want to overwhelm the nation so they proposed slowly introducing new word spellings with an initial list of 300 words that would be changed.  Some schools even adopted the suggests.  The go slow approach though got thwarted by a big stick.

Dan Quayle Decided To Be The Little Helper

President Teddy Roosevelt decided that me would be Vice-President Dan Quayle about 90 years before there was a Vice-President Dan Quayle.   If you recall, on June 15, 1992 then Vice-President Dan Quayle went to an elementary school in Trenton, New Jersey.  Quayle decided to help a kid with his spelling and added an “e” to the end of the word, potato.   That was effectively the end of Quayle’s political career and was no help in President Bush’s re-election bid.  It came as a big surprise to the eggheads on the Simplified Spelling Board when President Theodore Roosevelt unilaterly sent a letter to the US Government Printing Office on this date in 1906 that orderd the office to use the new spelling of the 300 words on the list.  President Roosevelt almost immediately got as much of a backlash as Vice President Quayle did nearly a century later.  Newspapers printed it as “Rozevult’s List.”  However,  Roosevelt managed to hold his seat in the White House.   The Rochester Post-Express pondered whether the president’s surname would spelled “Rusevelt” or “Buttinsky.”  The Baltimore Sun claim that the whole effort was simply “a scheme financed by Carnegie, backed by certain large publishing interests, and designed to carry out an immense project for jobbery in reprinting dictionaries and school books.”

The response to Roosevelt’s attempt to expand to power of the presidency to that of Grammarian in Chief was swift, broad and wicked. One columnist wrote that “nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, no tu lo for him tu notis.”  Congress wasn’t too certain that presidential powers extended to the spelling book and ordered the printer to pay no attention to the man with the big stick in the bully pulpit. So great was the public response, Mr. Roosevelt withdrew the order but later wrote that he glad “did the thing anyhow.”  I’m not certain exactly when the order was rescinded but Congress made certain that Presidential Power did not apply to the pen when on December 13, 1906 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution 142-24 that confirmed it would use traditional spelling found in most dictionaries and not the new and improved list of 300.  The US Supreme Court also vowed to not use the new spelling in spite of the involvement of Justice Brewer. 

Some Jobs Require Good Spellers

As many people who have read this blog can attest, either my spelling is lame or I can’t type.  But, spelling is very important and is seen by many as a reflection to the author’s competence or carelessness.  It would seem that words such as “kissed” did not become “kist” (except as part of the brand name “Sunkist”) but other words did gain a new set of letters.  It is not common in American to  spell “behavior’ or “color” with a “u.” 

The Good Old Washington "Natinals"

But, it would seem that text messengers have begun doing what Andrew Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt and others tried to do over 100 years ago as many words are spelled in a shorter, simpler form in messaging.  One that comes to mind is “enuf.”   The effort at spelling reform has a long history and some people in the 21st century continue the effort at spelling reform.  It remains to be seen if those efforts or the texting craze continues and if the abbreviations eventually transform the way English is written.  In the meantime, make sure you learn to spell properly. Dan Quayle never won another election and neither did Theodore Roosevelt.

Weather Bottom Line:  The operative word for the last few days of August is dry.  High pressure will continue to dominate but will drift to the east.  Today will again have highs limited to the low to mid 80’s and the overnight low will be in the upper 50’s and low 60’s.  After that we get on the backside of the high with a return southerly flow.  We’ll be around 90 on Saturday afternoon and low 90’s for the balance of the week ahead.  Overnight lows will climb to the mid 60’s on Sunday morning and then upper 60’s thereafter.   My hydrangia is telling me that it needs water and your garden will be screaming the same, if it’s not already.

6 Responses

  1. I started thinking about text messaging about the time you were reporting on the columnist who said, “nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, no tu lo for him tu notis.”

    I just hate it. I’m not prissy about language, and I’m not very fond of grammar police myself, but I still wonder: is it possible to have intelligent, substantive or beautiful thought with sloppy or lazy language?

    I have a friend who teaches in a high school. She’s been pulling out her hair for about two years. “Text-talk” is permeating classroom work, and she swears her kids are becoming less creative because they don’t have words to work with.

    I just checked. They do still have spelling lists and vocabulary cards in schools. I can go to sleep happy!

  2. creativity in general is in decline, in my view. Too much allowing for the TV or the computer tell us what to think or create fantasy for us and, more importantly, kids. Imagination gets limited.

  3. Why the continued misrepresentation of the Quayle spelling incident? Now Children, Dan was quizzing and checking the kids spelling from cards given to him by the school which had the old english spelling of potatoe with the E on the end. It is the media that continues to lie. I say muzzle the messenger.
    “Quayle decided to help a kid with his spelling and added an “e” to the end of the word, potato. That was effectively the end of Quayle’s political career and was no help in President Bush’s re-election bid” Media bullshit.

  4. First off, let’s be clear…and I’m sure from your condescending tone that you consider yourself intelligent…it is quite apparent that the post did not focus on Vice President Quayle but instead focused on the little known subject related to President Roosevelt. The quote that you repeated was correctly replicated but taken out of context. Your comments suggest that I implied that Mr. Quayle was not correct. I did no such thing. I also would not disagree that the media is either not very smart or deliberately obfuscating the truth on such matters. I also note that the media was silent when other politicians mangle words or misspeak such as when President Obama spoke of the 56 states. But again…THIS IS NOT ABOUT V.P. QUAYLE…It is about President Roosevelt. Further, in regards to the quote you mentioned, what I wrote was accurate, rightly or wrongly, the media hoopla played a large PR role to portraying Quayle in a poor light and he was of little help in President Bush’s re-election bid. I’ll go even further and say that the debate incident was also a media induced frenzy against Quayle…Quayle should have responded to Secretary Benson with “Respectfully, I never said that I was another President Kennedy and I am sorry that you have trouble either understanding English or representing accurately what other people say.” If he did not, a journalist should have said something like “in fairness, Mr. Secretary, Sen. Quayle did not say that he was another Jack Kennedy, he simply related that similiarities in their early careers.”

    But…AGAIN…it was not about Quayle. It is about Roosevelt and what I said was accurate, for better or worse. And, it is not “media BS” as you say, as I don’t even qualify for that moniker.

    While I appreciate your contribution and visitinig and invite you to visit other postings (where you may be surprised), I do encourage you to read for content and not jump to conclusions.

  5. Currently finishing up the last hundred pages of “Theodore Rex” by Edmund Morris and this particular subject is one of many fascinating things about his presidency.

    He wud hav luvd Twitter and it’s 140 character brevity🙂

    Great post.

  6. @shoreacres, you wrote:

    “I just hate it. I’m not prissy about language, and I’m not very fond of grammar police myself, but I still wonder: is it possible to have intelligent, substantive or beautiful thought with sloppy or lazy language?”

    What we’r talking about here is spelling … the meaning and note of the words themselvs stay the same. English spelling is utter crazy and hinders learning both for nativ kids and foreigners as well. It’s one of the biggest complaints I hear from foreign students trying to learn English. Study after study has highlighted the costs of our “stupid spelling” both financially and timewise.

    The -ough ending can be said at least eight ways! This leads to rote memorization of spelling of words rather a logically matching writing to the sounds of a word. BTW, altho, tho, thru, and thoro hav been accepted in formal writings in the US for over 100 years. There is no good or logical reason to write these words with their -ough variants.

    “nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, no tu lo for him tu notis.” … This truly easy to read aside from noting ‘c’ in ‘Rucesvelt’.

    “Tu for to is more logical (why hav an ‘o’ for a long ū?); we write hijack and hijinks … so ‘hi’ for ‘high’ is not unheard of; ‘fr’ is wrong … unless we want to drop all vowels; ‘tackel’ wuud be better than ‘tackl’ but either one is better than ‘tackle’ which is misleading to most foreigners who say it as ‘tack-lay’ … they say it as it is written! ‘Lo’ for ‘low’ is also commonly seen. ‘Notis’ for ‘notice’ is definitly an improovment!

    Many of those words on the list of 300 ar now spelt that way so his list wasn’t in vain.

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