Spelling Reform by Executive Order

If you’ve ever wondered why American spelling differs from that of British English (and perhaps mourned the unfortunate spellings of words like “gray” and “saber” in American English), here’s your answer.

In one of my personal favorite abuses of executive power, Theodore Roosevelt (who was apparently extremely bored at the time) released an executive order in August of 1906 mandating an alternate spelling of 300 words.  His changes included those now familiar to us (“catalogue” to “catalog”) as well as some that seem completely ridiculous (“missed” to “mist”).

The British press had an absolute field day with this ridiculous executive order, treating it with a complete lack of deference which journalists today would do well to emulate. As a New York Times writer in London reported:

President Roosevelt is the laughing stock of literary London to-day on account of the cabled announcement that, having nothing of much importance to do just now, he has undertaken to reconstruct the English language. Hardly a serious word has been employed in the discussion of his order to the Public Printer.  The British press replies to Mr. Roosevelt with an outburst of ridicule.  It is to laugh rather than to argue soberly has evidently been the mot d’ordre in editorial offices.  The humorists have been turned loose, and have been allowed to say anything they liked.

You can read the rest here, in pdf format, including excerpts from the excoriating and uproarious British response.

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