In August 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an order from his summer residence in Oyster Bay, New York, that would soon be the talk of Washington—and the world beyond.
Addressing himself to the government printer, Roosevelt decreed that all documents issued by the White House should now follow the spellings advocated by an organization known as the Simplified Spelling Board.
Launched the previous March and financed by the steel baron Andrew Carnegie, the board wanted to strip the American language of its antiquated British baggage and create a clean and modern version for the 20th century.
Carnegie, who’d immigrated to the United States as a teenager with little formal education, had high hopes for the project. “Mr. Carnegie has long been convinced that English might be made the world language of the future, and thus one of the influences leading to universal peace,” the New York Times reported. “He believes that the chief obstacle to its speedy adoption is to be found in its contradictory and difficult spelling.”
At the time, written German, which had been simplified in 1901, seemed poised to become the “world language of the future”—a development that neither Carnegie nor Roosevelt, both intensely competitive men, could possibly have welcomed.
Carnegie recruited a long list of luminaries to the cause, including the writer Mark Twain, the philosopher William James, Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, and the presidents of Columbia and Stanford universities, among others. If Carnegie’s “universal peace” seemed like a grandiose goal, they could point to other, more basic benefits. Spelling would be easier to teach in schools, possibly shaving a year or more off the curriculum, educators said. Business correspondence would be faster and cheaper to handle. Publishers could save on typesetting, ink, and paper costs.
In a September 1906 speech, Twain argued that the reforms would also help new immigrants assimilate. Traditional spelling, he maintained, “keeps them back and damages their citizenship for years until they learn to spell the language, if they ever do learn.”
As a first step, the board published a list of suggested substitutes for 300 words whose spelling it considered archaic. For example, it proposed that “although” be shortened to “altho,” “fixed” become “fixt,” and “thorough” be traded in for “thoro.”
Roosevelt forwarded the list to the government printer, with his official blessing. The 26th president was so “thoroly” convinced of the idea’s merits that he didn’t realize the controversy he was about to spark.
A Man of Words—and Lots of Them
Roosevelt’s obsession with words wouldn’t have been a total surprise to Americans of the day. Despite his popular image as a hard-charging soldier, big-game hunter, jungle explorer, and all-around outdoorsy he-man, he was also one of the nation’s most literate presidents. He wrote more than 30 books throughout his life and was a voracious reader as well, reportedly averaging a book a day.
But the reaction to his spelling move was swift and mostly negative, even though many of the words on the list were already in wide use, such “honor” instead of “honour” and “check” in place of “cheque.” The New York Times, in fact, calculated that at least 131 of the 300 simplified spellings appeared regularly in its own pages.
That seemed to make little difference, though. “Had President Roosevelt declared war against Germany, he could not have caused much more agitation in Washington,” the Washington Times reported.
“Of all President Roosevelt’s moves to stir up the animals,” the Washington Evening Star wrote a week after the order, simplified spelling seemed to strike an unusually sensitive nerve. “Abroad it has particularly aroused the latent animosity of the English,” the paper noted.
Recommended for you
Indeed, barely a day after Roosevelt’s announcement, the New York Times reported that, “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. (American papers also had their fun with the men’s names. The Baltimore Sun asked whether the president would start spelling his name Rusevelt or “get down to the fact and spell it Butt-in-sky?”)
Another report summed up the reaction across England: “Mr. Roosevelt, heretofore regarded as only a little lower than the angels, is now characterized as whimsical, silly, headstrong, and despotic.”
Congress Cries Foul
Nowhere was the reaction more negative than in the U.S. Congress. where many members were irritated that Roosevelt had bypassed them.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, attempted to calm the spelling storm. In a letter to the government printer, he characterized his order as merely an experiment, saying that the American public would ultimately decide its fate. “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, managing to sneak in at least one word from the beleaguered list.
The controversy seemed to have subsided, when, in October 1906, the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly got involved. Reviewing a government brief that had been prepared in accordance with Roosevelt’s order, Chief Justice Melville Fuller expressed his displeasure at seeing the word “thru” substituted for “through.” The government’s lawyer assured the court that it would never happen again.
The next month, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, noticing that the draft of a recent bill had been printed with simplified spellings, announced that it would be calling on the public printer to explain himself. Two weeks later the full committee weighed in, adding a provision to the bill that, “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.”
The entire House took up the matter the following week, debating the pros and (mostly) cons of simplified spelling for three hours. While Roosevelt’s reforms had a few supporters, the prevailing view was that he had overstepped his authority. “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,” one Congressman suggested.
Two days later, on December 12, 1906, the House voted 142 to 25 to withhold funding for the printing of any government document that deviated from conventional spelling. One impassioned foe declared, “If the President can change 300 words, he can change the spelling of 300,000.”
By now Roosevelt realized that he had really “stept” in it. The following day, he declared surrender, vowing to abandon the effort and admitting in a letter to a fellow advocate that it was “worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten.”
Though the New York Times praised the president for his grace in defeat, he might have had a more pragmatic reason for backing down. The next presidential election was coming up in 1908, and simplified spelling had the potential to be a contentious issue in the campaign. 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.”
Mark Twain also took note of the over-the-top reaction to Roosevelt’s fairly modest proposal. In dinner speech honoring Andrew Carnegie a year later, he joked that, “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.”
From its hopeful start to ignominious finish, Roosevelt’s initiative lasted barely four months. While it may have been a failure at the time, quite a few of its recommendations have long since come to pass. Although we haven’t adopted “kist” instead of “kissed” or “rime” in favor of “rhyme,” numerous words on the list are now in common use: “clue” (not “clew”), “draft” (not “draught”), “jail” (not “gaol”), “labor” (not “labour”), and many others.
Americans today might rightly wonder what all the clamor (not “clamour”) was about.