[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J26 1999/2 pp16-19]
See Chicago Tribune articles.

Spelling the Chicago Tribune Way,
1934-1975, Pt. III.

John B Shipley.

Dr Shipley is Professor of English (Emeritus) at University of Illinois, Chicago. Part I of this study appeared in JSSS 24, 1998/2 pp3-10, and Part II in JSSS 25, 1999/1 pp3-10.


This article falls into the following divisions:
Pt. I The spelling reforms
1. From 1934 until the autumn of 1955, soon after the death of the owner-publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick;
2. from late 1955 into 1975. (Published in JSSS 24, pp3-10.)

Pt. II Responses
1. The Tribune staff;
2. Readers;
3. Books, periodicals, domestic and foreign news- papers. (Published in JSSS 25, pp3-10.)

Pt. III Conclusions
1. Uncertain allies, especially dictionary publishers;
2. Causes of abandonment of the reforms;
3. Possible influence.

Acknowledgments: As for Pts. I & II.

Part III Conclusions

1. Uncertain allies, especially dictionary publishers.

The Tribune never managed to attract enduring support for its spelling reforms. Initially, it spoke of the "scores upon scores of identical shortenings (e.g., dropping the second L in crystalize, as in accepted traveler), that will come to pass when learned societies, universities, and energetic editors can persuade English-speaking peoples to accept thoroughly rationalized spelling of the English language." [1] As the years passed without such organisations as the National Education Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, universities such as Illinois or Michigan, and "energetic editors", wherever, having entered into the experiment, the Tribune editors went from "when" to expressing a hope. "... we have adopted simplified spellings of a few dozen words, including frate," it said 12 years later, "in the hope that our readers, including the editors of other publications, will come to accept the changes." [2] Nine years after that, hope was flagging: "We hoped that other publications would be attracted by the commonsense and etymological rightness of sherif and tarif for example, but this hope has been disappointed." [3] Years afterward, when the Tribune officially abandoned the experiment, editorial disappointment shifted focus, attributing its failure in part at least to "... the writers of spelling texts would not yield" to adopt Tribune spelling. [4]

In summer 1939, shortly after the Tribune queried its readers as to its adopting the shortened forms of the tho and thru groups, the president of a firm manufacturing scientific models (e.g., globes and anatomical models) for schools and furnishing the accompanying instructional manuals and guides, wrote to urge the changes. Citing National Education Association adoptions made years earlier, he stated, "Our company in all of its correspondence and in the various teachers' manuals and books that we prepare uses the revised spellings of these given words." Many textbook publishers, he added, also use them, and all dictionary as "sanctioned the shortened forms. ...." [5]

Whatever the encouragement in 1939 from this firm in the field of science education, the Tribune had received much more important letters from editors of a book-publishing firm, the John C. Winston Co., of Philadelphia, at the outset of the experiment. The first letter on simpler spelling in Vox Pop ('Voice of the People', the letters to the editor column), in fact, came from Dr William Dodge Lewis, co-editor of The Winston Simplified Dictionary along with Drs Thomas Kite Brown and Henry Seidel Canby. [6] Dr Lewis, those saying he could not "go the whole way with the simplified spelling board...," hoped that other papers would adopt the Tribune's list - its first one of 24 words - to which, he also hoped, it would add another. "Naturally," Dr Lewis went on to observe, "we book publishers cannot follow as rapidly as we should like to, but if we could get together - a most difficult procedure - I should be heartily in favor of adopting your list. I am sending it to some of my friends in other publishing companies in the hope that some such action may result." Results of any such action, given its occurrence at all, rest in the Winston Company archives, wherever they may be, the company having been swallowed up in a merger years ago (and that new company having then being remerged). It was, nonetheless, a promising idea, that of Dr Lewis.

Several weeks later, Dr Thomas Kite Brown, another of that editorial triumvirate at John C. Winston Co., wrote an important and disheartening letter that James O'Donnell Bennett, in charge of the newspapers spelling reforms, made centre-piece of an article. The letter, he said, "is among the most interesting and revealing received by THE TRIBUNE since..." it began its experiment. What the letter revealed, the headline epitomised: "WHY DICTIONARY // MAKERS AVOID // SANER SPELLING // They Fear One Another, Says Authority." [7] Dr Brown actually concluded on an optimistic note, applauding the Tribune's effort and suggesting that it may be "the final fillip that will put simplification over. No great newspaper has ever before tried... We will be right in the forefront of those issuing revised dictionaries," he added encouragingly, "if there seems to be a chance." [8]

The bad news had come upfront, seemingly to preclude any such chance from developing. The five major - Dr Brown wrote "great" - American and British dictionary houses, he asserted, do not trust one another. One of them was then on the verge of publishing "a new revision - a world event, really - the first real revision since 1910. They keep their plans secret, but there is not a chance in the world that they will simplify more than to a vanishingly small extent." The dictionary was, of course, Webster II - the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language - issued as "an entirely new book..." later in 1934. If its editors simplified even as much as "to a vanishingly small extent", it would need a lexicographer's experienced eye to detect it. Were even one of the unabridged dictionaries to venture into simpler spellings on its own, Dr Brown asserted, it would not survive owing to "prejudice and competition". One of them had tried it many years ago, according to information he received from an editor at that firm, who said "that the publishers still shiver at the recollection and give the idea of a repetition of the attempt a safely wide berth."

Their own dictionaries, bearing the general title of The Winston Simplified Dictionary, in fact gave several simpler spellings. "We are not completely medieval," Dr Brown stated, citing the tho-thru group as alternative spellings - this, several years before they became Tribune spellings - and the words ending in -gog and such forms as dulness and fulness. But these, he concluded, "go about as far as we thought we dared to go." They actually went somewhat farther, as Bennett may well have realized.

Bennett seems to have been familiar with the dictionary - at least The Winston Simplified Dictionary. Practical Edition, its then latest version dating from 1932 - [9] and its reception over "the last several years ...... it having "gained favor", in his words, "in public schools because its definitions and etymologies are simple and its type large." What he did not remark and what Dr Brown obviously broached in his letter, was its effort at simplifying spellings. Of the 80 shortened spellings in the Tribune list through March 18, the Winston Dictionary gave about 25 as preferred spellings or permissible variant spellings, including, in addition to some of those Dr Brown instanced, bazar, drouth, fantom, harken, instalment, lacrimal, rime and tonsilitis. Clearly, then, in the editorial group behind the dictionary, McCormick and Bennett had supporters ready to advance the experiment.

Yet even then, there were those at another dictionary house who, potentially, might have turned out to be even stronger allies. This was the group at Funk and Wagnalls Publishing Company that had produced "America's first determinedly popular dictionary, ...Standard Dictionary of the English Language [that) appeared in 1893..." [10] and in several other editions over the years, the one relevant here having been published in 1932. Isaac Kaufman Funk, along with his founding partner, Adam Willis Wagnalls, was sympathetic to simplified spelling from the beginning and joined the Simplified Spelling Board. [11] Their very popular dictionary became Bennett's primary lexicographical support for his spelling reforms in the Tribune, and with good reason. In the dictionary's introductory section on spelling, the editors expressed their preference for simpler spelling, mentioning, as well, the American Philological Association, the Spelling Reform Association, and the Simplified Spelling Board. This preference governed other sections of front matter, specifically a sub-section on "Spelling Reform." [12]

Bennett occasionally cited various organizations, as well as the OED, when their orthographic or dictional recommendations meshed with his. But of the two dictionaries that Bennett put head-to-head, Funk and Wagnalls' Standard Dictionary and Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (the last revision of Webster I, in 1933), Funk and Wagnalls' won heads up. Bennett cited the two dictionaries about 15 times each in those four articles from late-January to mid-March, 1934 presenting the Tribune's simplified spelling. Twice he wrote of "the conservative Webster" approving of a spelling, [13] that epithet being quite unsuitable for Funk and Wagnalls'. More characteristic are such citations as Webster's having adhered to missile, while Funk and Wagnalls' gave missil, the Tribune spelling, as second choice; or in the spelling of eclog and other words ending in -gue Funk and Wagnalls' had "boldly dropped the UE. Webster has not. ......." [14] Bennett knew that the editors and publishers of both The Winston Simplified Dictionary and Funk and Wagnalls' Standard Dictionary walked the same orthographic tracks as he. The editors of one dictionary wrote to the Tribune to say so, as previously indicated. A cursory glance at the front matter of the 1932 Funk and Wagnalls' dictionary, which clearly had been the edition Bennett used for his articles, would have revealed immediately where the editors' sympathies lay concerning reformed spelling.

It is idle to speculate on the outcome of Tribune spelling had Bennett and the editors at John C. Winston Co. and at Funk and Wagnalls' sought to reinforce one another's efforts to reform spelling. The obvious point is that they did not seek to collaborate. The Tribune relied on hope. Hope could not suffice.

The Tribune editors announced publicly in 1955 that they were severely cutting back on simpler spellings. But the symbolic retreat had actually occurred in 1939 in that memo from the managing editor conveying McCormick's directive on simplified spelling to the staff: "...we will go back to Webster in the case of the words now spelled in the Tribune as follows...," with the 38 words appended. [15] Bennett had retired at the end of January 1939. Two months later the experiment was seriously weakened, even though a few spurts of energy were to come in the following years (eg, with frate and the tho-thru group). The Webster to which the managing editor referred was, of course, the 1934 Webster, Webster II.

Ironically, the failure of the Tribune staff and the dictionary house editors to come together led ultimately not only to the cessation of the Tribune experiment but also to the demise of the Funk and Wagnall dictionaries themselves. At just about the time that McCormick and his spelling editors first went back to Webster, the Funk and Wagnall dictionaries began to fall out of favor, finally ceasing to appear in the 1960s. "Isaac Funk's determination to promote spelling reform, which had been sustained in all the company's dictionaries," a lexicographic scholar has stated, "proved their undoing. These reforms, which remained integral to the dictionaries until the 1940s, gradually alienated readers." [16] "From now on," ran that editorial in September 1975 definitively ending the experiment, "Webster's Third will be our guide, first variants preferred." [17] This directive returning the Tribune to the conservative Webster brought the process to its formal conclusion.

2. Causes of abandonment of reform.

The alleged villains of the piece were the schoolteachers, whom all too many sources derisively called schoolmarms. They made easy targets, behind whom ranged a whole complex of other groups and, to move from the human to the abstract level, all those relevant socio-cultural forces at work in America when the Tribune conducted its experiment. That usual suspect, the general conservative tendency of speakers of a language to shrink from abrupt change, no doubt has a supporting role to play here. [18]

The Tribune, not many years into its experiment with simplified spelling, deliberately began to let it slide, finally to abandon it. McCormick himself had mightier campaigns to wage - against that would-be dictator, F D Roosevelt; against the insidious efforts of Communists, both domestic and foreign, to bring down America and its way of life; and against those who would subvert freedom of the press, that thin line of defense against government tyranny - to give sustained attention to reforming spelling. Thus for him and his spelling editors to have relied on the hope that others would follow the Tribune's example constituted a rationale for inaction, a turning away.

"Why, with all its righteousness and force," one commentator asked in 1934, "has not the Tribune been more successful in effecting reforms? Many an editor, striving to be a success in his community, asks himself an identical question and seldom finds the answer. The truth is that all newspapers are a shade futile." [19] Though according to this same commentator, McCormick campaigned for his reforms "arrogantly", his arrogance, if that is what it was, proved futile against Tribune advertisers on one matter only, their unwillingness to accept its way of spelling in their advertisements. [20] Simpler spellings, these businesses believed, distracted from meaning.

Confusion apparently also reigned in the newspaper's editorial rooms: a Tribune staffer remarked that their efforts to achieve that consistency that is the hallmark of good style were continually frustrated by exceptions to their simplified spellings - if hammoc, "why not knoc or noc? ... what about ough inenough?" [21] The Tribune, however, did not spread orthographic "confusion" by other means than its pages. Its nationally syndicated wire service, the Chicago Tribune Press Service, apparently did "not simplify any spellings. [22] As Time had phrased it, "Prime reason for the return to standard spelling is to bring the Trib style closer to that of wire services, most other papers, and current teaching in the U.S. journalism schools." [23]

Additional socio-cultural forces had their impact, notably generational changes within Chicago-land and demographic shifts bringing newcomers into it. These changes introduced a new readership to the Tribune unfamiliar with its experiment with simplified spellings. In the absence of any continued editorial explanation of the experiment itself, these readers may well have thought that Tribune writers could not spell. Once only, so far as I am aware, did the editors trouble to explain its spelling policy in all those years between late 1955 and late 1975. This was not in an editorial, but in a reader-response column, 'Action Express', to which a recent arrival from St. Louis had addressed the query, "Just why and when did The Tribune decide to toss out though and through in favor of tho and thru?"- this in 1972.

The letter-writer received his answer, brief, to the point. [24] The response, tucked away in a column less likely to be read than an editorial, suggests what Tribune editors and staffers interviewed in the earlier 1970s confirmed - that simplified spelling no longer fitted in with their image of the Tribune and with their plans to remake the newspaper. Clayton Kirkpatrick, then editor, and McCrohon, then managing editor, kicked over the traces of the Medill-McConnick eras by ridding the front page of the political cartoon, the chauvinistic slogan 'The American Paper for Americans', and the picture of a business or factory flying the American flag. The lay-out of the newspaper underwent changes as well. "In an interview [in 1973], McCrohon agreed that 'abandoning these trick [sic] spellings is part of the new look. I think most people will say it's about time.'" Another member of the Tribune staff, Jackie Wells, who apparently wrote the 1974 Tribune style book, furnished a fuller explanation:
Clayton Kirkpatrick ... made the decision and it was cut and dry. Thru, thoro and altho are being thrown out. Kirk wants to get rid of all of them.

Tribune spelling appears somewhat ridiculous. Going against tradition is very hard. The Tribune spelling didn't have a conscious effect upon the readers. But it had an effect upon school children who can't spell. Like [sic] Kirkpatrick said: "We tried and it didn't work." [25]
Why, then, did the Tribune way of spelling return to the conventional after 41 years? The answer has to be a tangle of teachers and technology, human contrariness on both small and large scale, and the heirs to a business wanting to remove from it the stamp of their corporate father and grandfather, first in 1955 and again 20 years later, so as to replace it with their own - one, they judged, more in tune with the mid and later 20th century. McCormick's way of spelling was thru.

3. Possible Tribune influence.

As anyone who has read thus far will readily grasp, this section is to be, regrettably, the shortest one of all. Earlier sections of this article have noted an instance or two in which someone credits the Tribune with having influenced a choice of reformed spelling. The question of any larger or longer-lasting impact uponword-spelling admits of no direct answer.

The only major newspapers "to show any sign of emulation..." were the New York Daily News, owned by McCormick's cousin, Joseph Patterson, and the Washington Times-Herald, bought by McCormick in 1949 and brought under his direct control two years later. The New York tabloid went "little beyond nite, alright, foto, fotog and fotographer," H L Mencken observed, "in all of which the influence of Variety seems to be quite as palpable as that of the Tribune - indeed, I may add, more palpable." As for the Times-Herald, simplified spellings the Tribune way, such as frate and photograf, showed up on its pages. "But," a veteran staffer and editor on this newspaper said, "for several reasons, the effect [of making over the whole paper on the Tribune model] was unfortunate," McCormick's simplified spellings apparently contributing in their way to this effect. [26]

Otherwise, the print record of possible influence consists of here a word and there a word. The Milwaukee Journal - to stay with a newspaper for the instant - noted parenthetically that it, too, continued using cigaret and dialog - this in 1975. But it gave no hint of Tribune influence." [27] Can one attribute to the Tribune the spellings considered acceptable as in this passage, written in 1979: "Today's dictionaries not only accept the truncated OG [as in catalog, dialog] but such Tribune neologisms as skilful, drouth, fantom, harken, and canceled."? [28]

Is it nearer the mark to suggest that in the instance of these words and possibly some others (eg, tranquility) the Tribune way of spelling reinforced and perhaps gave defining approval to the general acceptance of these forms? In other words, that the Tribune was an important, possibly in several cases the most important, influence, among others, stretching back into the later 19th century? For, after all, the spelling reform movement in America alone has a history going back to those 18th-century rationalists, Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster. Robert R McCormick's way of spelling helped sustain that history when few others did.

Notes & references.

CDT = 'Chicago Daily Tribune'
CST = 'Chicago Sunday Tribune'

[1]CST, Feb.11, 1934, Pt.1, p.10, c.6.

[2] Edit., "To Phyllis Who Might Spell It Phreight," CDT, Wed., Aug. 7,1946, Pt.1, p.16, c.2.

[3] Edit., "Helping Johnny to Spell," CST, Aug. 21, 1955, Pt.1, p.20, C.1.

[4] Edit., "Thru is through, and so is tho," CDT, Mon., Sept. 29, 1975, Pt.2, p.12, c.1.

[5]CDT, Fri., Aug. 11, 1939, Pt.1, p.10, c.7: letter, dated Chicago, Aug. 3, from L P Denoyer, who was President, Denoyer-Geppert Company. This company, which then produced maps, globes, charts, and anatomical models of various kinds for schools, is now the Denoyer-Geppert Science Company, producing only the models for educational use. I thank Mr. Alfred Heidrich, President, for filling me in on the company's history. Its archival records do not go back into the 1930s.

[6] Letter, dated Philadelphia, Pa., Jan. 30, "A Book Publisher on Spelling," CDT, Sat., Feb. 3,1934, Pt.1, p.12, c.6.

[7] Bennett art., CST, Mar. 25, 1934, Pt.1, p.8, c.1.

[8] Dr Brown had remarked in the previous paragraph that the Tribune should have "some royal fun in exposing the ignorance... of those..." who will insist, for example, on the S in island as derived from insula and the U in tongue as from lingua.

[9] This edition ran to 1260 pages; according to the National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, the largest Winston dictionary had 1362 pages. Bennett, in referring to it as having 1500 pages, seems to have rounded it upwards.

[10] Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made New York: Henry Holt and Co., [1996], p.447.

[11] Green (1996), p.448, and Abraham Tauber, Spelling Reform in the United States, N.Y.: Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation 1958, pp. 116-117.

[12] Funk and Wagnalls' New Standard Dictionary of the English Language ... New York & London, 1932, pp.xii, xxix, xxxviii, and 2780 (an Appendix on the rules of the SSB).

[13] CST, Feb. II, 1934, p.10, c.4, under bagatel; and CST, Feb. 25, 1934, p.1, c.3, under program.

[14] CST, Feb. 11, 1934, p.10, c.7; and CST, Mar. 18, 1934, Pt.1, p.9, c.2.

[15] Memo, dated Mar, 30, 1939, in the McCormick Research Center.

[16] Green (1996), p.449. Whatever data Green might have had supporting his statement that Funk and Wagnalls' spelling reforms alienated readers, that data does not appear in his book. In an earlier article, 'Simplified Spelling in Government Publications', American Speech, 29:1 (Feb. 1954), 36-44, George R. Ranow used Webster II (!) to illustrate his point (p.44) that "the eagerness of the dictionaries to reflect the shifts in spelling and even the stronger desire of the printers to be ever, even if so slightly, ahead of the dictionaries..." led to some 200 now recognized simplified spellings, either as preferred spellings or variants.

[17] Edit., "Thru is through and so is tho," CDT, Mon., Sept. 29, 1975, Pt.2, p.2, c.2. Webster's Third had appeared in 1961.

[18] William Safire, "On Language: Smilin' Thru?" New York Times Magazine, Sun., May 2, 1993, p.14, c.3, furnished a representative comment of this nature: "Certainly usage tends to simplify spelling (alright, already), but native speakers hate to be told by philologists, advertising copywriters and other brisk neatness freaks how to fix the old lingo. We'll make it easier in our own time, the public seems to say - just don't push us." Safire had mentioned McCormick earlier in the column. I thank Cornell Kimball for bringing it to my notice.

[19] 'The Chicago Tribune', Fortune, IX:5, May 1934, p.108.

[20] See Waldrop (1966), McCormick of Chicago, p.106. I have not tried to ascertain whether Tribune advertisers sought to introduce their own shortened words into their copy during McCormick's day.

[21] James Vicini (1973), p.65, interview with James Hallman, Tribune graphics editor, Sept. 28, 1973, in 'Under the Spell of the Chicago Tribune'. Senior Thesis. MacMurray College, Jacksonville, Illinois, Dec. 1973.

[22] Vicini (1973), p.53. I have not tried to verify Vicini's assertion.

[23] 'No More Frater Trafic', Time, XCVII:4, Jan. 25, 1971, p.47.

[24] CT, Mon., Nov. 6, 1972, Sect. 1A, p.1. The answer reads in part, "A gradually lessening deluge of protest has been washing against Tribune Tower ever since [the introduction of reformed spelling in 1934]. While The Tribune was praised by philologists for its innovative move in using such spellings as catalog, analog and glamor, purists, spelling bee champions and others raised their voices in objection. Hence, the list was revised to where only a few shortened spellings remain a part of Tribune style today." Vicini (1973), p.69, summarized an interview, Sept. 28, 1973, with L A van Glissengen, assistant to the editor of the Tribune, Clayton Kirkpatrick, in which van Glissengen made the point about demographic change as a cause of the newspaper's abandoning the experiment.

[25] Vicini (1973), pp.68-9, for the Wells interview, conducted on Sept. 28, 1973; and p.70, for the McCrohon interview, conducted on Sept. 29, 1973.

[26] See for this material, Mencken, The American Language, Supplement II (1948), p.295; Waldrop (1966), p.106, where he spoke of this ill effect without entering into the reasons; and "The Colonel's New Guns," Newsweek, Sept. 17, 1951, p.80.

[27] Tribune Gives Up on Spelling Crusade', in Accent section, The Milwaukee Journal, Wed., Oct. 1, 1975, p.3.

[28] Joseph Gies, The Colonel of Chicago, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. (I 979) p. 102. On catalog, see Stuart Berg Flexner, Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past, New York: Simon and Schuster Co. [1982], p.215.

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