Teddy Roosevelt tried to abolish ‘-ed’

English has plenty of perverse and rather unhelpful features. One of them is that British and American English have differing conventions as to proper spelling. It can therefore be rather unclear whether to use colour or color, cheque or check, arse or ass.

Io9 has an interesting article by Lauren Davis on how this divergence came about through the efforts of men like Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster to create a system for spelling that promoted a single way of speaking across the new United States.

At the very end of the article she recounts what almost came to pass:

The gaps between American and British English could have yawned much wider if President Theodore Roosevelt’s order to reform American spelling had taken hold. Following the lead of the Simplified Spelling Board, Roosevelt ordered the Public Printer in 1906 to alter the spelling of 300 different words. The words included many words that ended in -ed, which would now end in -t—so that “mixed” became “mixt,” “pressed” became “prest,” “possessed” became “possest” and so on. And the “-ugh” was dropped for words like “although” (“altho”), “though” (“tho”), and “thorough” (“thoro”).

Members of the SSB included folks like Mark Twain, Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal system), dictionary editors, publishing magnate Henry Holt, and Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, but that pedigree was not enough to protect the 300-word list from ridicule. Critics had a field day with the list, concocting new and increasingly bizarre spellings in order to mock Roosevelt and the list. (And, naturally, a lot of fun was had with the spelling Roosevelt’s own name.) The president ended up retracting the order, and the printer returned to conventional American spelling. It’s proof that, while it can and does happen, spelling reform can be and extremely difficult thing to achieve.


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