Theodore Roosevelt's Letter to the Government Printing Office
A minor mystery attends this document. Public Printer Charles Stillings says in the Government Printing Office directive of September 4, 1906, that the spelling changes are being made pursuant to "Executive order." Histories that mention Roosevelt's spelling initiative usually say that the president issued an executive order for this purpose on August 27, 1906. However, "executive order" is a term of art. Executive orders are the ordinary means that presidents use to carry out the duties of their office. They are numbered sequentially. Since the middle of the 20th century they have been systematically codified. However, no such executive order appears in the list of presidential documents issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 or in any other year. The letter below may be a simple letter of transmittal.
The text here is widely available in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Volume V: The Big Stick 1905-1907; edited by Elting E. Morison, John M Blum, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and Sylvia Rice; Havard University Press, 1952; pages 389-390. Note that this collection of letters does not include the list of reformed spellings. The list of spellings may be found, along with the text of the president's letter, in the Government Printing Office document of September 4 mentioned above. That document is available on mircofiche at major federal documents repositories. The series is US Executive Branch Documents, 1789-1909: no. GP102-27.1, GP102-27.2). The material includes copies of the Circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board mentioned in the president's letter.
Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906
To Charles Arthur Stillings
My dear Mr. Stillings: I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board, which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the criticism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be achieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred.
There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars–men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slightest 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 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. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write "plow" instead of "plough"; which has made most Americans write "honor" without the somewhat absurd, superfluous "u"; and which is even now making people write "program" without the "me"–just as all people who speak English now write "bat," "set," "dim," "sum," and "fish" instead of the Elizabethan "batte," "sette," "dimme," "summe," and "fysshe"; which makes us write "public," "almanac," "era," "fantasy," and "wagon," instead of the "publick," "almanack," "aera," "phantasy," and "waggon" of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight 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.
Charles Stillings observed in his directive of September 4, 1906 that 153 of the words on the Simplified Spelling Board's proposed list were already preferred by the Government Printing Office. Of the rest, 49 were not preferred but had been used when the authority that ordered the printing requested it. We should note that many of the New Spellings simply canonized American as distinguished from British usage.
Using the spellchecker in the 2003 edition of Word set for American English, the software rejected approximately 106 of the New Spellings. Of these, the largest class were forms like "affixt" and "transgrest." In contrast, the spellchecker rejected 178 of the Old Spellings. Note that, because of the inclusion of variants, there are a few more Old Spellings than New.
scimitar, cimeter, etc
teasel, teasle, teazle
through, thro', thro
practise, v. & n.
This note is derived from H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558.
Now Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was a great reformer. In his first four-year term (3 1/2, actually, since he assumed office after the assassination of President McKinley), he reformed the railroads, he reformed the meatpacking industry, he even reformed the rules for American football. In his second term, perhaps having run out of more obvious things to reform, he turned his attention to English spelling.
Why did Roosevelt do this? It is often mentioned in this regard that Roosevelt was a notoriously poor speller. This in itself was probably the result of the fact he had never spent any time in a conventional academic environment before he entered Harvard. He had poor health as a child and rich parents, so he was educated by tutors, who perhaps were not interested in the type of drills that constitute schooling for less-favored children. More important, though, was that Roosevelt was very language-conscious. He spoke the major modern languages and read the ancient ones. He was also a prolific author on most things under the sun. He was therefore unusually likely to be annoyed by traditional English spelling, since he struggled with it daily and knew that there were alternatives.
The result was that he issued a directive to the Government Printing Office to adopt a list of 300 reformed spellings recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board. He further directed that his report to Congress for 1906 be printed and distributed in the reformed system. Had this order stuck, most federal documents would have been issued in a slightly reformed style starting in 1907. Many of the proposed spellings were obscure scientific terms, and the changes the Simplified Spelling Board recommended did not reflect any general system of reformed spelling. Nonetheless, had the president's order been carried out, a precedent for reform would have been set.
What happened, though, was that Congress went ballistic. A big part of the problem was just that Roosevelt had tried to implement the reform by executive fiat. He had not even tried to get Congressional support for the measure. Although Roosevelt had been successful in Congress during his first term, his success was based on his ability to scare the Right with what the Left supposedly wanted to do, and vice versa. Opposition to spelling reform was one thing they could all actually agree on. Another factor, of course, was that nowhere in the Constitution is there any grant of power to the president to oversee orthography. For that matter, neither is any such power granted to the federal government as a whole.
The upshot was that Congress passed a joint resolution expressing its disapproval of the executive action. The Supreme Court refused on its own authority to use the reformed spellings. Perhaps more surprisingly, in view of Roosevelt's popularity and of the fact that spelling reform was not an unfamiliar idea in those days, the major national newspapers were uniformly derisive. The New York Times, for instance, said that it would treat any reformed spellings issuing from the federal government as misspellings and correct them. Finally, Roosevelt just rescinded the directive. Ironically, many of the recommended changes were already current and most became preferred spellings over time..
As was shown by the fuss that arose in Germany in the 1990s when the government tried to implement a quite minor spelling reform, this can be what happens when a democracy tries to reform orthography.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly