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When Theodore Roosevelt Tried to Reform the English Language

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A number of famous names have been involved in reforming the English spelling system over the centuries, but probably one of the most unexpected names on that list is Theodore Roosevelt. Known for his uncompromising stance on many issues, in the early 1900s Roosevelt used the full power of his position to try to force through several hundred new spelling reforms in an attempt to make the language—and the cost of printing government documents—more economical. Despite even the president’s involvement, however, in the end Roosevelt’s war on spelling collapsed before it was able to have any lasting effect on our spelling.

FRANKLIN, WEBSTER, AND THE WAR ON WORDS

Probably the most famous spelling reformer in the history of American English, if not the English language as a whole, is Noah Webster. He famously proposed a number of potential simplifications of the English language in his Compendious Dictionary in 1806, and then again in his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Webster’s proposals, however, were actually inspired by the earlier work of Benjamin Franklin, whose idea for reforming the English language involved both adopting a purely phonetic spelling system and dropping the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y from the alphabet entirely, to be replaced by six less potentially ambiguous letters of his own design.

Franklin devised his phonetic alphabet as far back as 1768, when he wrote a letter to a friend to explain that “if we go on as we have done a few Centuries longer, our words will gradually cease to express Sounds; they will only stand for things, as the written words do in the Chinese Language.” Although Franklin’s ultimate goal of increasing literacy and making English easier to learn was commendable, his friend, Mary "Polly" Stevenson, was unimpressed with his proposal. Using Franklin’s invented alphabet for her reply, she pointed out that using a purely phonetic alphabet meant cutting the ties between spelling and etymology, and would make differentiating between words that sound the same all but impossible. Webster, however, was more enthusiastic.

In 1786, he sent his own plan for a purely phonetic alphabet to Franklin, hoping to win his support in establishing it as a national standard. Franklin responded positively, saying, “I think the Reformation not only necessary but practicable.” The founding father suggested that, since he had already done a great deal of work on the subject (and due to inherent difficulties in discussing such things in letter format), the two should meet up to discuss a path forward. But in reality, Franklin no doubt envisaged the enormous difficulty in implementing such a scheme nationwide.

The idea was eventually abandoned, and Webster—driven by a desire to sever ties between the English used in Great Britain and the English used in the newly independent United States—was left to pursue much less radical changes. Although not all of the spelling reforms he went on to suggest may have hit the mark (his preference for the spellings tung, soop, aker, dawter, porpess, beleev, and masheen leave a lot to be desired), Webster was more successful when it came to the likes of dropping the extraneous letters of colour, waggon, and publick, and simplifying the spelling of words like plough and aeon—changes that continue to divide British and American English today.

PITMAN SHORTHAND AND BRIGHAM YOUNG'S ALPHABET

Other attempts to reform the language followed on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 19th century. In the 1830s, the British schoolteacher Isaac Pitman published a series of pamphlets arguing for a reform of the English language; his research eventually led to his invention of a shorthand writing system. In 1842, a French scholar named Auguste Thibaudin proposed an insanely complicated alphanumeric system—albeit one that would work across all languages that used the Roman alphabet—in which different vowel sounds were replaced with the numbers from 1 to 9 and six additional symbols. Even Mormon Church leader Brigham Young got in on the act in 1854, advocating that his followers use a “Deseret Alphabet” developed by a committee at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). And following the formation of the Spelling Reform Association in 1876, in 1898 America’s National Education Association put its weight (with varying degrees of success) behind the adoption of 12 of the SRA’s suggested reforms in all educational material nationwide: program, tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, catalog, prolog, decalog, demagog, and pedagog.

But perhaps the last major attempt to reform the English spelling system came almost a century after the publication of Webster’s Compendious Dictionary, and it was this final attempt that gained the support of President Roosevelt—and the most powerful and well-known American writers and figures of the day.

CARNEGIE AND THE SIMPLIFIED SPELLING BOARD

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in 1906 by the Scottish-born steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie had long had an interest in language and the arts (he funded and gave his name to more than 2500 libraries worldwide), and, prompted by the various attempts at simplifying the language in the 1800s, soon turned his attention to spelling reform after the turn of the century. Given his background in business and overseas trade, Carnegie saw the potential for English to become, as The New York Times put it, “the world language of the future,” and saw a single global language common to everyone as a stepping stone to world peace. But in this respect, he believed, English was being held back by its “contradictory and difficult spelling.”

In response, Carnegie funded the establishment of a board of experts tasked with reforming the language to make it easier to learn and more economical, both linguistically and financially—removing all the unnecessary letters from all the words in the language could, after all, save a considerable amount of ink and paper.

As the Board’s first published circular explained in 1906:

[The present English spelling system] wastes a large part of time and effort given to the instruction of our children, keeping them, for example, from one to two years behind the schoolchildren of Germany … Moreover, the printing, typewriting and handwriting of the useless letters which our spelling prescribes … wastes every year millions of dollars, and time and effort worth millions more.

Carnegie set aside $15,000 per year (eventually raised to an eye-watering $25,000) for five years to fund the project, equivalent to well over $2 million today. He secured a plush office space on Madison Avenue in New York, and there assembled a group of 30 writers, language experts, scholars, and public figures—among them Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System) and David Josiah Brewer (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court). According to its chairman, Columbia University’s professor of dramatic literature Brander Matthews, the principal aim of the Simplified Spelling Board was merely to accelerate the kinds of language changes that were likely to occur over time anyway, regardless of the Board’s involvement. To that end, they were to focus in particular on dropping unneeded or unpronounced letters—or, as Professor Matthews put it, a kind of “simplification by omission.”

Their first task was merely to advocate further the 12 spelling reforms put forward by the Spelling Reform and National Education Associations in 1898, which entailed lobbying several influential writers and publications (The New York Times among them) to utilize the reforms in their work. But having set to work themselves, it wasn’t long before the Board had soon assembled its own selection of 300 such reforms, which they published in full at the end of March 1906.

KIST, MIST, PAST: THE BOARD'S SUGGESTED REFORMS

Many of the Board’s own suggestions had already been proposed by Webster, or else were already establishing themselves as perfectly acceptable spelling variations in American English, like center, checks, esthetic, theater, and sulfurous; the use of S instead of C in words like offense and defense; and the dropping of the extraneous E's in the likes of judgment, lodgment, and acknowledgment. Many of the Board’s choices were likewise relatively understandable alterations, aimed merely at simplifying troublesome words. So the G was lost from apothegm, and the vowel clusters in words like archaeology, subpoena, and diaeresis were reduced. Other suggestions, however, were more radical.

Purr and burr were to be clipped to pur and bur. Out went the letter A in the middle of deth. Steadfast became stedfast. Hard S's were to be changed to Z's, so that surprise, compromise, and partisan became surprize, compromize, and partizan. Rhyme became rime. Phoenix became phenix. Gazelle became gazel. And, perhaps most bizarrely of all, the straightforward –ed endings of a number of words were to be uncompromisingly replaced with –t, so that as well as kist, addrest, propt, wrapt, clapt, flipt, and dipt, the word passed became past and the word missed became mist, regardless of any potential confusion that might cause.

Despite several questionable choices and troublesome shortcomings like these, the Board’s suggestions were initially well received by the press and were even advocated by the New York Board of Education for use in the city’s schools. But the biggest step forward came several months after the list was published, on August 27, 1906: Reportedly without contacting the Board first, President Roosevelt issued an executive order forcing all future publications of the Government Printing Office to adopt the new spelling system in its entirety. The move was an immense, if somewhat unexpected, coup for the success of the Board’s project—but, as it turned out, it was one that would eventually lead to its collapse.

BACKLASH AND THE AFTERMATH: THE RESPONSE TO RUSEVELT'S RULES

Roosevelt’s characteristically no-nonsense and swift-acting approach was nothing new (he passed more than 1000 executive orders during his presidency; Barack Obama has signed around 250). But his steamroller approach to the language and to spelling reform did not go down well, both at home and abroad. A wave of satirical cartoons and damning newspaper editorials ensued on both sides of the Atlantic, all of them mocking the President’s apparent war on language.

"Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis. He makes tretis without the consent of the Senit. He inforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales to se those that do not soot him. He now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself as a sort of Frensh academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself."

—The Louisville Courier-Journal, 1906

The Baltimore Sun questioned whether President Roosevelt would now spell his name “Rusevelt.” The New York Times reported that “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.” In Britain, the feeling was even more vitriolic: the Pall Mall Gazette labeled him “an anarchist,” while the Saturday Review called America “The Home of the Free and the Paradise of the Half-Educated.” The London Evening Standard raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!” Even Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, joked that the president only supported the reform because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”

In the face of all this criticism, the Supreme Court chose to ignore Roosevelt’s decree—but the President remained steadfast, even going so far as to employ the spelling system he was so staunchly advocating in his annual address to Congress in 1906, in which he wrote of naval recruits being “put thru” too quickly to senior grades at “regimental posts scattered thruout the country.” But it was all for nothing: On December 13, 1906, the House of Representatives voted 142–25 to banish the suggested spelling reforms from their publications, and dictated instead that all United States government documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.” Roosevelt was defeated.

Despite a protest by Professor Matthews, the president immediately repealed his executive order, stating that it was “evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest” against Congress, but concluded finally that, “I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.” Mark Twain was just as disappointed, and wrote to Carnegie to say that “I am sory as a dog, for I do love revolutions and violense.” Carnegie didn’t lose faith immediately, though. He continued funding the group through 1915 when, $300,000 poorer, he wrote to Matthews to explain that he was withdrawing its funding: “I think I have been patient long enuf,” he wrote. “I have a much better use for twenty-five thousand dollars a year.”

Both Roosevelt and Carnegie died in 1919, after which the Board struggled to secure more funding. Their last act was to publish a Handbook of Simplified Spelling, written wholly in their reformed English, in 1920, before they finally disbanded later that year. Although a number of the Board’s suggested reforms remain in place today, on the whole the project failed to have much of a lasting effect on the language—despite having the backing of a president.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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