Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Effort to Simplify Spelling

Wy duz English hav such weerd spelling? Sum words uze silent letters. Others use dubel letters inconsistently for ekwal sounds, such as “blizzard” and “lizard.” Wat if we cud mak it eezy?

What you just read may appear to be the illegible scratching of a second-rate second-grade student. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that it would have been viewed as the enlightened style of some of the most sophisticated people in society.

The only reason the English language hasn’t been cast into the dustbin of history is momentum. So many people speak it, that we have grudgingly accepted its nonsensical rules that consist almost entirely of exceptions. Nowhere is its inconsistency seen better than in spelling.

Unlike the French language, which is governed by the Académie Française, English does not have a central place where rules are developed. It is a language of custom. What was impermissible to our grandparents is perfectly acceptable to us. If you want “unassailable” to become an adjective that describes a flavor that is a peculiar blend of chocolate and horseradish, just start using the word in that way. If you can get enough people to go along with you, that’s the definition that will appear in the dictionary.

In other words, if you want to change the way English is used or how words are spelled, you can do it if you have enough influence. It stands to reason, therefore, that highly-influential people shouldn’t have a lot of difficulties accomplishing a change in something that everyone agrees makes no sense, right?

That reasoning seems unassailable. (By that, we mean that there’s no good argument against it — not that we think your reasoning tastes like chocolate and horseradish). Once again, we run into the “this makes no sense” aspect of English. When some of the most influential people in the world tried to fix something that everyone agreed made no sense, they fell faster than a ballet dancer who got a foot caught in a dangling participle.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a time for people with big dreams. One of them was Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish-born entrepreneur came to the United States and pursued his dreams to become one of the wealthiest people in history.

Having revolutionized the steel industry, Carnegie turned his sights to languages. He was convinced that the development of a universal language was needed to unleash the full potential of commerce, and he wanted English to be that language.

Written German had successfully been simplified in 1901. Many people thought this would pave the way for German to be the world’s primary means of communication. The English-speaking Carnegie was opposed to such a proposition. English was clearly the superior language if it weren’t for its ghastly spelling practices. He reasoned that a rewrite in the way we write would open doors for people around the world to embrace English and usher in a worldwide financial boom.

Andrew Carnegie (left) and Theodore Roosevelt (right)

Carnegie pointed to benefits beyond those of the commercial world. He maintained that spelling would be easier to teach in schools, possibly shaving a year or more off the curriculum. Business correspondence would be faster and cheaper to handle. Publishers could save on typesetting, ink, and paper expenses. It would also shorten the amount of time it takes for immigrants to adapt to their new culture, speeding up the citizenship process. In short, addressing the spelling perplexities of English would have benefits for everyone.

Carnegie created the Simplified Spelling Board. It was tasked with scouring the English lexicon and fixing all antiquated British words, replacing them with clean, easy-to-learn, and streamlined substitutes.

With over 600,000 distinct words in the English language, the Simplified Spelling Board needed to tackle this project in bite-sized chunks. Its first assignment was to identify the 300 worst offenders. The list included some uncontroversial choices: “labor” instead of “labour,” and “bark” instead of “barque.” The New York Times, in fact, had already adopted 131 of the 300 revisions as part of its style book. It also had some that made sense, but looked quite strange: “kist” instead of “kissed,” and “clapt” in the place of “clapped.”

The first page of the initial 300-word list of words to be simplified

The list shows just how much English changes in terms of word usage. The initial list of the top 300 offenders included some that are rarely used today, the definitions of which are elusive to many of us in the original or proposed spelling: accoutre/accouter, coaeval/coeval, and paedobaptist/pedobaptist.

Having Andrew Carnegie’s name in support of simplified spelling would carry a lot of weight with the public, but to really make the sell, others would have to back the movement. He set to work recruiting some big names to the cause. Author Mark Twain, philosopher William James, Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, and the presidents of Columbia and Stanford universities and others all signed on.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Ervin Wardman, expressing hope that Wardman’s spelling will be correct.

As impressive as this list of supporters was, Carnegie had his sights set on one more — possibly the most influential of all the influencers. He went right to the top and pitched the whole idea to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was not at all afraid of tacking out-of-the-box, grand concepts. His bold advocacy of the Panama Canal and of turning the United States into a world-class naval power were just two examples of his approach to thinking big. When he heard about the radical proposal to tackle English language reformation, he was more than a little intrigued.

Roosevelt had a much better than average appreciation of the English language than most of those who have lived at the White House. Despite his popular image as a rugged outdoorsman, he was also an avowed bookworm. He was an accomplished speed reader, devouring an average of one book each day. He wrote more than 30 books, covering a remarkable range of his inexhaustible interests.

It took little time to convince the Rough Rider. In August 1906, Roosevelt issued an order from his summer residence in Oyster Bay, New York. The man who said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” would soon be known as the man who wrote simply and carried a downsized dictionary. He sent his order to the government printer, directing that all documents issued by the White House should now follow the spellings advocated by the Simplified Spelling Board.

He would soon learn that it would be easier to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with a canal than it would be to bridge the divide between language reformers and the unwashed masses. He could not have imagined the controversy his order would generate. For Roosevelt, simplified spelling, quite simply, made sense. Why anyone would disagree with it would have been a mystery to him.

Within days, Roosevelt’s grand idea was openly mocked in the nation’s leading newspapers. The New York Times reported, “President Roosevelt is the laughing stock of literary London,” adding that newspaper writers there were now simplifying his surname, referring to him as Rusvelt and Ruzvelt, while Carnegie was caricatured as Andru Karnegi and Karnege. The Baltimore Sun went a bit further, and asked whether the president would start spelling his name Rusevelt or “get down to the fact and spell it Butt-in-sky?”)

One week after his order, the Washington Evening Star wrote, “Of all President Roosevelt’s moves to stir up the animals, [simplified spelling] has particularly aroused the latent animosity of the English.” Another newspaper, the Washington Times, opined, “Had President Roosevelt declared war against Germany, he could not have caused much more agitation in Washington.”

The newspaper suggested that official British society was offended, viewing the president’s order as a slap in the face to the Mother Tongue. The greatest indignation, however, was less than a mile from the White House. Members of Congress were at least as upset that the president had bypassed the legislative process as they were about the change in how words were to be spelled.

Roosevelt tried to calm the naysayers. He maintained that his order was intended to be an experiment and that the ultimate decision would be made by the American public. “If the slight changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it,” he wrote, sneaking one word — dropt — from the list of 300 proposed changed spellings.

The United States federal government is comprised of three branches. The Executive Branch had made its case. The Legislative Branch expressed its disapproval. Things appeared to be at a stalemate until October 1906, when the Judicial Branch spoke into the matter. Chief Justice Melville Fuller was reviewing a brief that had been prepared in accordance with Roosevelt’s order. He let the government’s attorney know of his displeasure at seeing the word “thru” appearing thruout throughout the brief. The attorney assured the Chief Justice that it would not happen again.

In November 1906, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations called upon the government printer to explain why simplified spelling had been used on a draft of a recent bill. Two weeks later, the full committee escalated its concern by adding a provision in the bill: “Hereafter in printing documents authorized by law or ordered by Congress… the Government Printing Office shall follow the rules of orthography established by Webster’s or other generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

One week later, the entire House of Representatives was speaking into the controversy surrounding simplified spelling. For three hours, the matter was debated. One member of the House predicted, “Some time before very long, the people of the United States are going to insist on having a President that will attend to his own business.” Another warned, “If the president can change 300 words, he can change the spelling of 300,000.”

On December 12, 1906 — just four months after Roosevelt’s bold announcement — the House voted 142 to 25 to withhold funding for the printing of any government document that deviated from conventional spelling.

It would take identical action by the U.S. Senate to turn the House resolution into law, but Roosevelt saw the riting writing on the wall. Besides, he had other fish to fry. As the Boston Transcript put it, “Unable to excoriate Roosevelt for squelching the coal strike, beginning work on the Panama Canal, stopping the Russo-Japanese War, cleaning up the packing houses, and irritating the trusts, [Roosevelt’s opponents] will denounce him with lurid frenzy for tampering with the spelling book.”

The day after the House vote, he gave up on simplified spelling and wrote that it was “worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten.”

Fellow spelling reform advocate Mark Twain was surprised at the negative reaction to a common-sense proposal. Characteristically, he was able to find some humor in the situation. In a dinner speech honoring Andrew Carnegie a year later, he reflected on all the controversy and concluded, “Simplified spelling brought about sun-spots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone.”

Twain’s fellow author, Arthur Conan Doyle, was unable to dismiss the movement so quickly. He gravely warned, “Reformed spelling might become universal, but it would cease to be the English language.”

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