Ruzvelt Sez Spel Az Yu Pleez

Sep 13, 2018

Each year a group of aspiring young professionals joins in our work as summer interns. They often make interesting discoveries in the digital library. Here, Hannah Gramson investigates a controversy sparked by TR during his second term as president.

“Had President Roosevelt declared war against Germany, he could not have caused more agitation in Washington,” a reporter for the Washington Times wrote in August 1906, after Roosevelt issued an executive order that would cause international outrage, resentment, and ridicule.

Roosevelt's presidency was defined by his progressive views. Throughout his tenure, Roosevelt sparked controversy with his aggressive pursuance of a number of reforms, causing many of his contemporaries – including some members of his own political party – to consider him a radical. So, to which controversial reform was the Times reporter referring in 1906? What could have caused just as much agitation in Washington as a declaration of war?

Apparently, spelling.

Spell as you please postcard

That's right. When Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to adopt a new spelling system for all of its future publications in August 1906, some did consider it a declaration of war – a war on the English language.

The new spelling system was a set of recommendations made by the Simplified Spelling Board, an organization that had formed earlier that year, financed by Andrew Carnegie. The board was comprised of writers, language experts, scholars, and public figures, including Melvil Dewey (of Dewey decimal system fame) and Mark Twain. Its mission was to strip the American language of outdated or unnecessary spelling and create a more efficient, practical, and modern version.

“It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent, or indeed anything very great at all,” Roosevelt insisted in a forward he penned for The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book. “It is merely an attempt to cast what slight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book

The Board published a list of 300 suggested substitutions for outdated words. The new words had dropped unnecessary letters, such as the “u” in “colour” or the “b” in “debt,” and simplified words that were more complicated than they needed to be, suggesting “tho” to replace “though,” and “enuf” to replace “enough,” thereby creating a more phonetic (or should I say “fonetic”) language.

The intentions of the Board were practical. The English language was unnecessarily complicated – teachers were wasting too much time on spelling instruction in class and printers were wasting too much money on ink. Carnegie was also convinced that English could be adopted as a universal language around the business world, if only English were easier to read and write.

For other advocates of simplified spelling, however, it was a social issue. Twain, for example, believed that a simpler English language would make it easier for immigrants to assimilate. Similarly, in a letter to Roosevelt from Brander Matthews, a professor at Columbia University and the Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Board, Matthews declared that, “As long as the foreign voter can't read, he is the prey of the henchmen… But anything which makes it easier for him to read, helps just so much toward his thinking for himself.”

Roosevelt himself appeared to consider the issue of much greater importance than just the amount of ink wasted on writing extraneous letters. In correspondence with William Dean Howells, Roosevelt thanked Howells for his support, saying, “I particularly welcome your comparing what I am trying to do in the matter with what I am trying to do in so much more important a matter as the effort to restrain the accumulation of, and supervising the control and use of, great fortunes. I do not believe in violent revolutions, but I do believe in steady and healthy growth in the right direction.”

Reading through the list of suggestions, you may notice that many of the words have been adopted into American vernacular, such as “clue” instead of “clew” and “fantasy” instead of “phantasy.” In fact, a large portion of the words the Board suggested were already in wide use; the New York Times reported that at least 131 of the 300 spelling suggestions appeared regularly in its own papers.

Nonetheless, the media immediately and relentlessly mocked Roosevelt, spelling his name Rusevelt or Ruzvelt in their headlines and publishing satirical cartoons poking fun at the new simplified spelling. His actions also drew ire from across the pond, where the London Evening Standard decried, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow…dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”

The New Spelling cartoon

In December of 1906, just four months after Roosevelt issued the ill-fated executive order, the House of Representatives voted 142-25 to banish the new spelling system from their publications and ruled that all government documents should adhere to the standard spelling prescribed in accepted English dictionaries. Their decision was the kiss of “deth” for Roosevelt's spelling reform.

In the face of so much criticism, Roosevelt repealed the order that the New York Times said had done him more harm “than perhaps any other act of his since he became president,” and the mission to simplify the English language faded away.

Several weeks after the congressional nail was hammered into the spelling reform coffin, James Jeffrey Roche wrote to Roosevelt to show his support for his efforts. “I suppose it was too 'radical' for the blessed people who still think that reading and writing constitute a sort of intellectual aristocracy,” Roche lamented. “Well, they will be wiser in another generation, and will laugh when they read that President Roosevelt was censured for trying to add a few improvements.”


Further Reading

Daugherty, Greg. "Teddy Roosevelt's Bold (But Doomed) Battle to Change American Spelling." History, March 9, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.

Jones, Paul Anthony. "When Theodore Roosevelt Tried to Reform the English Language." Mental Floss, November 3, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2018.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Teddy Roosevelt Simplifies Spelling." Thought Catalog, February 12, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.

"Spelling Reform Order Came Like Thunderbolt to Department Clerks." The Washington Times (Washington, D.C.), August 25, 1906.

Posted by Hannah Gramson on Sep 13, 2018 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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