[See also Chicago Tribune articles, 1934, 1939, and articles by Burke Shipley.]
Also on this page: Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1997. Section 2. page 1

Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1997 Section 3A page 14

ERRANT SPELLING

Moves for simplification turn Inglish into another langwaj

BY ERIC ZORN, TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Tok wuz cheep.

For decades - centuries even - important and often thoughtful people such as Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Noah Webster, H.G. Wells and Theodore Roosevelt decried the absurdities of English spelling and dreamed of the enlightened renaissance that would follow a logical simplification.

Oh, the abomination of silent letters! Double letters in which only one was pronounced! Stray letters! Three letters where one would do! How many hours do schoolchildren spend in mnemonic toil mastering the orthographic arts? How often are the great thoughts of adults derailed by a trip to the dictionary? How much better could life be if that lump of exhausted brain cells devoted to "cough," "island," "debut" "solder" and scores of other such curiosities were applied to improving the human condition?

This idea flourished in the general context of the late-19th Century Utopianism, itself a product of the dizzying pace of change in science and technology. To the would-be visionaries, the great lesson of the Industrial Revolution was that all things seemed perfectible through standardization, mathematical order and logic. Our often impenetrable spelling conventions seemed a perfect target.

Proponents of change published magazines devoted solely to spelling; organizations such as the American Spelling Reform Association, the Simplified Spelling Board and the American Philological Association lobbied for major changes; and quixotic publishers, including Tribune Editor Joseph Medill, took several tentative stabs at it.

"Lerning tu spel and red the Inglish langwaj iz the grat elementary task ov the pupol," wrote Medill in an 1867 monograph. He introduced a few of these ideas to the newspaper - dropping the final "e" from "favorite," for instance - but archivists say they faded away with his death in 1899.

Though the idea had flourished, the reality had not. In fact, it was not until 1934, when the simplified spelling movement had been all but eclipsed by more intricate and esoteric theories about language and culture, that the Tribune mounted the most sustained and high-profile experiment in the movement's history.

Though the effort is most often identified as one of the more notable eccentricities of Tribune Publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick, McCormick biographer Richard Norton Smith says it is all but certain that Medill, McCormick's grandfather, was the inspiration and guiding light.

In a front-page article on Jan. 28, 1934, the Tribune trumpeted 24 new spellings "harmonizing with sane trends." These included several that have since become quite standard, including "analog" "catalog" "tranquility" and "canceled," as well as an assortment that today look either like typos - "fulfilment" "cotilion," "hocky," - or the wild stabs of an inattentive 5th grader - "fantom," "advertisment," "patroled." These words joined a handful of fairly benign simplifications McCormick had introduced in the 1920s, including "worshiped," "kidnaped" and "calk."

In February 1934, readers got 18 more - "burocrat," "pully," "crum" - and another 18 two weeks after that - "herse," "staf," "lacrimose." In another fortnight, McCormick introduced the final 20 new spellings in the opening round, this perhaps the most provocative of the lot: "doctrin," "derth," "yern," "jaz."

One notes the conspicuous absence of the always difficult "kernl" and McCormick's failure to change Cantigny, the name of his estate, to the phonetically correct "Kanteeny."

McCormick might have recognized that it is the odd filigrees on such words as "colonel" and "Cantigny" that give them their distinctive flavor and appeal; that even if you pronounce them as before, spelling them the new way turns them bland and despoils their heritage.

But probably not. "He was simply idiosyncratic," said Smith, whose 612-page biography "The Colonel" is being published this summer. "He was the reincarnation of his grandfather, a man who would have 100 ideas a day, only a dozen of which were any good. And what many of these ideas and beliefs had in common was that the Chicago Tribune could change the world."

So why not spelling? It has never been fixed in stone, after all - take a look at the tangle of letters served up by 14th century bard Geoffrey Chaucer to see how far we've come.

But the public never quite subscribed to McCormick's idea, no matter its deepest motivations. Along with being soulless, the new, putatively easier words were harder to read at first than the old versions. Further, there really was little logic to the attempt at adding logic to the lexicon - "if 'yern' why not 'lern?'" asked Marquette University journalism historian John Vivian in a 1979 essay. "Inconsistencies in analogous words were troublesome" - and as such, the Tribune confused schoolchildren instead of helping them.

"The advantages of spelling reform have always been greatly exaggerated by its exponents, many of whom have been notable over-earnest and under-humorous men," noted H.L. Mencken in an extended review of the movement contained in his "The American Language" book series. Many of their new formations looked more to the public like ignorance than innovation, Mencken observed, while their precise estimates of labor reductions and savings in the costs of paper and printing materials that would result from simpler spelling were "so feeble as to be silly."

Other publications did not follow suit and, instead, poked fun. Five years after the reform began, the Tribune's editors tried to pull the plug on the experiment but succeeded only in halving the list. Later in 1939, however, the Tribune introduced "tho," "thru" and a host of their compound variants such as "thoroly," perhaps the most famous (or infamous, as Vivian had it) of the simplifications.

Words came and went over the next 15 years. "Cigaret," "hiccup" and "frate" made the grade. But "iland" did not and went back to "island" at the insistence of readers, who put the "ph" back into "sofomore." McCormick's wife reportedly put the kibosh on the Colonel's attempt to change the spelling of the family name to "Micormak."

"If the changes annoy our readers too much, we go back to the old forms," said an August 1946 editorial headlined "To Phyllis, who might spell it 'phreight.'" "[But] ever since there has been an English language, spelling has been changing and most of the changes have been simplifications. All we are trying to do is carry along the work."

It is probably no coincidence that the experiment all but died four months after McCormick passed away in 1955. "The decision to give up [most of] the simplifications was reached for a number of reasons, but chief among them was the desire to spare schoolchildren any needless confusion in learning to spell," said an editorial glumly acknowledging the irony. "We hoped that other publications would be attracted by the common sense and etymological rightness of 'sherif' and 'tarif,' for example, but this hope has been disappointed. The consequence is that children see the word spelled in different ways and some teachers told us that this had added to the normal difficulties of teaching and learning."

The newspaper clung to a few of the floating scraps from this shipwreck until Sept. 29, 1975, when an editorial headlined "Thru is through and so is tho" conceded defeat yet again and sighed, "Sanity someday may come to spelling, but we do not want to make any more trouble between Johnny and his teacher."

Though that last editorial claimed that "'epilog,' 'dialog' and 'synagog'" would remain because they have "seemed to be gaining acceptance," in fact those simplifications gradually disappeared from Tribune pages.

Today, aside from the old spellings found in musty news archives, virtually the only remnant in Tribune Tower of the Colonel's grand experiment are elevators labeled "Frate."

Though there was hubris and fatuousness in this, there also was something noble. The newspaper had an idea, thought it was good, gave it a shot, didn't hurt anybody and abandoned it when it was time, if not a little after. The "Inglish langwaj" has recovered - and so have we.

Copyright 1997, The Chicago Tribune.


Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1997. Section 2 page 1

Eric Zorn

As we approach the conclusion of the Tribune's yearlong 150th anniversary observance, duty compels me to issue a clarification on a matter formerly of some importance to this newspaper.

The simplified spelling movement is not dead. Contrary to the impression I may have left in my contribution to the massive commemoration edition June 8, the Tribune's 41-year experiment in spelling reform did not killed the idea once and for all when it concluded in 1975.

Indeed the "heyday is now" for efforts to modernize and otherwise make sense of English spelling, according to the leader of the 89-year-old Simplified Spelling Society, a language professor with the fittingly optimistic name of Christopher Upward.

Though the society has only about 100 members worldwide, Upward, with whom I was in touch only after my article appeared, said that new scholarship as well as the growth of English as a world language have made the cause particularly vital.

You can read a transcript of my lengthy e-mail interview with Upward at my Web site. It includes his description of the "Cut Spelling" system with which he proposes that publications experiment, perhaps just in one column once a week to start.

"With its famus histry of involvmnt in the spelng reform question," he writes, using the system, "Th 'Chicago Tribune' myt be the ideal paper to start th trend."

Myt be. But it is the Sun-Tyms tern.