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Teddy Roosevelt Simplifies Spelling

The Idea to Simplify 300 English Words

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Portrait of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Portrait of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Picture courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In 1906, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt tried to get the government to simplify the spelling of 300 common English words. However, this didn't go over well with Congress or the public.

Simplified Spelling Was Andrew Carnegie's Idea

In 1906, Andrew Carnegie was convinced that English could be a universal language used around the world, if only English was easier to read and to write. In an attempt to tackle this problem, Carnegie decided to fund a group of intellectuals to discuss this issue. The result was the Simplified Spelling Board.

The Simplified Spelling Board

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded on March 11, 1906 in New York. Included among the Board's original 26 members were such notables as author Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), library organizer Melvil Dewey, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, publisher Henry Holt, and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage. Brander Matthews, professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, was made chairman of the Board.

Complicated English Words

The Board examined the history of the English language and found that written English had changed over the centuries, sometimes for the better but also sometimes for the worse. The Board wanted to make written English phonetic again, as it was long ago, before silent letters such as "e" (as in "axe"), "h" (as in "ghost"), "w" (as in "answer"), and "b" (as in "debt") crept in. However, silent letters were not the only aspect of spelling that bothered these gentlemen.

There were other commonly used words that were just more complex than they needed to be. For instance, the word "bureau" could much more easily be spelled if it was written as "buro." The word "enough" would be spelled more phonetically as "enuf," just as "though" could be simplified to "tho." And, of course, why have a "ph" combination in "phantasy" when it could much more easily be spelled "fantasy."

Lastly, the Board recognized that there were a number of words for which there already were several options for spelling, usually one simple and the other complicated. Many of these examples are currently known as differences between American and British English, including "honor" instead of "honour," "center" instead of "centre," and "plow" instead of "plough." Additional words also had multiple choices for spelling such as "rime" rather than "rhyme" and "blest" rather than "blessed."

The Plan

So as not to overwhelm the country with an entire new way of spelling at once, the Board recognized that some of these changes should be made over time. To focus their push for adaptation of new spelling rules, the Board created a list of 300 words whose spelling could be changed immediately.

The idea of simplified spelling caught on quickly, with even some schools beginning to implement the 300-word list within months of it being created. As the excitement grew around simplified spelling, one person in particular became a huge fan of the concept - President Teddy Roosevelt.

President Teddy Roosevelt Loves the Idea

Unbeknownst to the Simplified Spelling Board, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to the United States Government Printing Office on August 27, 1906. In this letter, Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to use the new spellings of the 300 words detailed in the Simplified Spelling Board's circular in all documents emanating from the executive department.

President Roosevelt's public acceptance of simplified spelling caused a wave of reaction. Although there was public support in a few quarters, most of it was negative. Many newspapers began to ridicule the movement and lambasted the President in political cartoons. Congress was especially offended at the change, most likely because they had not been consulted. On December 13, 1906, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that it would use the spelling found in most dictionaries and not the new, simplified spelling in all official documents. With public sentiment against him, Roosevelt decided to rescind his order to the Government Printing Office.

The efforts of the Simplified Spelling Board continued for several more years, but the popularity of the idea had waned after Roosevelt's failed attempt at government support. However, when browsing the list of 300 words, one cannot help but notice how many of the "new" spellings are in current use today.

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