The Long View: Theodore Roosevelt's Letter to the Government Printing Office

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.

Sincerely yours


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.

The List

Old Spellings

abridgement 

accoutre 

acknowledgement 

addressed 

adze 

affixed 

although 

anapaest, anapæst 

anaemic, anæmia 

anaesthesia, anæsthesia 

anaesthetic, anæsthetic 

antipyrine 

antitoxine 

apothegm, apophthegm 

apprise 

arbour 

archaeology, archæology 

ardour 

armour 

artisan 

assise 

axe 

banns 

barque 

behaviour 

blessed 

blushed 

brasen 

brasier 

bunn 

burr 

calibre 

calliper 

candour 

caressed 

catalogue 

catechise 

centre 

chapped 

cheque 

chequer 

chimaera, chimæra 

civilse 

clamour 

clangour 

clapped 

clasped 

clipped 

clew 

coaeval, coæval 

colour 

coulter 

commixed 

compressed 

comprise 

confessed 

comptroller 

coquette 

criticise 

cropped 

crossed 

crushed 

queue 

cursed 

cutlass 

dactyle 

dashed 

decalogue 

defence 

demagogue 

demeanour 

deposite 

depressed 

develop 

diaeresis, diæresis 

dyke 

dipped 

discussed 

despatch 

distill 

distressed 

dolour 

domicile 

draught 

drachm 

dressed 

dripped 

drooped 

dropped 

dullness 

oecumenical, œcumenical 

aedile, ædile 

aegis, ægis 

enamour 

encyclopaedia, encyclopædia 

endeavour 

envelope 

Aeolian, æolian 

aeon, æon 

epaulette 

eponyme 

aera, æra 

oesophagus, œsophagus 

aesthetic, æsthetic 

aesthetics, æsthetics 

aestivate, æstivate 

aether, æther 

aetiology, ætiology 

exorcise 

expressed 

faggot 

phantasm 

phantasy 

phantom 

favour 

favourite 

fervour 

fibre 

fixed 

flavour 

fulfill 

fullness 

gauge 

gazelle 

gelatine 

guild 

gypsy 

glose 

glycerine 

good-bye 

gramme 

gripped 

harbour 

hearken 

heaped 

haematin, hæmatin 

hiccough 

hough 

homoeopathy, homœopathy 

homonyme 

honour 

humour 

hushed 

hypothenuse 

idolise 

impressed 

instill 

gaol 

judgement 

kissed 

labour 

lachrymal 

lapped 

lashed 

leaped 

legalise 

licence 

liquorice 

litre 

lodgement 

looked 

lopped 

lustre 

mamma 

manœuver, manœuvre 

materialise 

meagre 

mediaeval, mediæval 

metre 

missed 

mitre 

mixed 

mould 

moulder 

mouldering 

mouldy 

moult 

mullein 

naturalise 

neighbour 

nitre 

nipped 

ochre 

odour 

offence 

omelette 

oppressed 

orthopaedic, orthopædic 

palaeography, palæography 

palaeolithic, palæolithic 

palaeontology, palæontology 

palaeozoic, palæozoic 

paraffine 

parlour 

partisan 

passed 

patronise 

pedagogue 

paedobaptist, pædobaptist 

phoenix, phœnix 

phaenomenon, phænomenon 

pygmy 

plough 

polype 

possessed 

practice 

prefixed 

praenomen, prænomen 

pressed 

pretence 

preterite, præterite 

praetermit, prætermit 

primaeval, primæval 

professed 

programme 

prologue 

propped 

purr 

quartette 

quaestor, quæstor 

quintette 

rancour 

rapped 

rase 

recognise 

reconnoitre 

rigor 

rhyme 

ripped 

rumor 

sabre 

saltpetre 

saviour 

savour 

sceptre 

septette 

sepulchre 

sextette 

sylvan 

scimitar, cimeter, etc 

sipped 

scythe 

skillful 

skipped 

slipped 

smoulder 

snapped 

sombre 

spectre 

splendour 

steadfast 

stepped 

stopped 

stressed 

stripped 

subpoena, subpœna 

succour 

suffixed 

sulphate 

sulphur 

sumach 

suppressed 

surprise 

synonyme 

tabour 

tapped 

teasel, teasle, teazle 

tenour 

theatre 

though, tho' 

thorough, thoro' 

thoroughfare 

thoroughly 

through, thro', thro 

throughout 

tipped 

topped 

tossed 

transgressed 

trapped 

tripped 

tumour 

valour 

vapour 

vexed 

vigour 

visor 

waggon 

washed 

whipped 

whiskey 

willful 

winked 

wished 

woe 

woeful 

woollen 

wrapped

New Spellings

abridgment 

accouter 

acknowledgment 

addrest 

adz 

affixt 

altho 

anapest 

anemia 

anesthesia 

anesthetic 

antipyrin 

antitoxin 

apothem 

apprize 

arbor 

archeology 

ardor 

armor 

artizan 

assize 

ax 

bans 

bark 

behavior 

blest 

blusht 

brazen 

brazier 

bun 

bur 

caliber 

caliper 

candor 

carest 

catalog 

catechize 

center 

chapt 

check 

checker 

chimera 

civilize 

clamor 

clangor 

clapt 

claspt 

clipt 

clue 

coeval 

color 

colter 

commixt 

comprest 

comprize 

confest 

controller 

coquet 

criticize 

cropt 

crost 

crusht 

cue 

curst 

cutlas 

dactyl 

dasht 

decalog 

defense 

demogog 

demeanor 

deposit 

deprest 

develop 

dieresis 

dike 

dipt 

discust 

dispatch 

distil 

distrest 

dolor 

domicil 

draft 

dram 

drest 

dript 

droopt 

dropt 

dulness 

ecumenical 

edile 

egis 

enamor 

encyclopedia 

endeavor 

envelop 

Eolian 

eon 

epaulet 

eponym 

era 

esophagus 

esthetic 

esthetics 

estivate 

ether 

etiology 

exorcize 

exprest 

fagot 

fantasm 

fantasy 

fantom 

favor 

favorite 

fervor 

fiber 

fixt 

flavor 

fulfil 

fulness 

gage 

gazel 

gelatin 

gild 

gipsy 

gloze 

glycerin 

good-by 

gram 

gript 

harbor 

harken 

heapt 

hematin 

hiccup 

hock 

homeopathy 

homonym 

honor 

humor 

husht 

hypotenuse 

idolize 

imprest 

instil 

jail 

judgment 

kist 

labor 

lacrimal 

lapt 

lasht 

leapt 

legalize 

license 

licorice 

liter 

lodgment 

lookt 

lopt 

luster 

mama 

maneuver 

materialize 

meager 

medieval 

meter 

mist 

miter 

mixt 

mold 

molder 

molding 

moldy 

molt 

mullen 

naturalize 

neighbor 

niter 

nipt 

ocher 

odor 

offense 

omelet 

opprest 

orthopedic 

paleography 

paleolithic 

paleontology 

paleozoic 

paraffin 

parlor 

partizan 

past 

patronize 

pedagog 

pedobaptist 

phenix 

phenomenon 

pigmy 

plow 

polyp 

possest 

practise, v. & n. 

prefixt 

prenomen 

prest 

pretense 

preterit 

pretermit 

primeval 

profest 

program 

prolog 

propt 

pur 

quartet 

questor 

quintet 

rancor 

rapt 

raze 

recognize 

reconnoiter 

rigor 

rime 

ript 

rumor 

saber 

saltpeter 

savior 

savor 

scepter 

septet 

sepulcher 

sextet 

silvan 

simitar 

sipt 

sithe 

skilful 

skipt 

slipt 

smolder 

snapt 

somber 

specter 

splendor 

stedfast 

stept 

stopt 

strest 

stript 

subpena 

succor 

suffixt 

sulfate 

sulfur 

sumac 

supprest 

surprize 

synonym 

tabor 

tapt 

teazel 

tenor 

theater 

tho 

thoro 

thorofare 

thoroly 

thru 

thruout 

tipt 

topt 

tost 

transgrest 

trapt 

tript 

tumor 

valor 

vapor 

vext 

vigor 

vizor 

wagon 

washt 

whipt 

whisky 

wilful 

winkt 

wisht 

wo

woful 

woolen 

wrapt


T.R.: The Last Romantic
By H. W. Brands
This note is derived from H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558.

The History

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

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