President Forces Government to Reform Spelling

Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the Un...

President Theodore Roosevelt

Yes, it’s true. Oh, not today’s president, but in New York City in August, 1906 President Teddy Roosevelt ordered the government to adopt the Simplified Spelling Board‘s changes in spelling. Then, as now, sometimes a president involves himself with issues that are much too trivial. It all began in March of that year whenAndrew Carnegie decided that, if the English language were easier to read and write, it could become the universal language of the world.  He was quoted in the New York Times as saying that, “English might be made the world language of the future” and that it’s practice was only prevented by its “contradictory and difficult spelling”. He funded the Simplified Spelling Board which consisted of thirty members, most of whom were quite prominent such as Brander Matthews, the first professor of dramatic literature; Mark Twain, author; Dr. Melvil Dewey, originator of the Dewey Decimal System; United States Commissioner of Education and editor-in-chief of the 1909 Webster’s New International Dictionary, William Torrey Harris; and publisher, Henry Holt, among others.

The primary goal was to eliminate unnecessary letters from words in order to simplify the spelling making reading and writing easier to memorize. Words such as believe would become beleve, through would be changed to thru, though > tho, catalogue > catalog, addressed > addresst, calibre > caliber, and brasen > brazen, axe > ax, enough > enuf. In April, 1906, the board identified 300 words to begin with and, by June, New York City’s Board of Superintendents recommended that the Board of Education adopt these changes into the curriculum.

Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.
Arnold Bennett

By late summer, President Roosevelt signed an order mandating the use of the reformed spelling in all his official communications with Congress, which did not go over well, since Congress had not been informed of his intentions prior to the mandate. Roosevelt then tried to force the federal government to implement the system in all public federal documents. The order was obeyed and was used in his special message about Panama Canal. The President’s acceptance of the simplified spelling caused quite a reaction, most of it negative. He was ridiculed by the press via political cartoons. In December, 1906, Congress unanimously passed a motion renouncing the changes in spelling and stated they would use the spelling in the standard english dictionaries. Defeated, the President rescinded the order to the Government Printing Office.

Andrew Carnegie, American businessman and phil...

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie disagreed with the manner in which the Simplified Spelling Board presented the changes. He said, “Amended spellings can only be submitted for general acceptance. It is the people who decide what is to be adopted or rejected.” He felt that introducing a few spellings changes at a time by people who influenced the public on a grass-roots level would have been more effective.

It’s interesting to note how many of those simplified words are used today. What words do you recall being simplified over time and used today? As writers, how do you think your readers would feel about the use of simplified spelling?

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2 thoughts on “President Forces Government to Reform Spelling

    • Haley-Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! Fellow history lover here, too. Wish I had loved this much in high school when it really would have helped me pass American History class!

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