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A Quixotic History of Doomed Efforts to Fix Spelling

In 1934, Robert McCormick, the arch-conservative owner of the Chicago Tribune, began one of the most progressive experiments in U.S. newspaper history. He instituted a “Sane Spelling” program—words in the Trib now had to be spelled the way they were pronounced.

McCormick hoped to set an example. With “ou” pronounced differently in tough, cough, though, through, and bough, English clearly has a spelling problem. Sure, only about a quarter of English words are spelled senselessly—but they tend to be among the words most used.

Change rarely goes over easily, though. Other people—Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt, for instance—had previously advocated for similar spelling programs and been thwarted. That helps explain why McCormick took it slow, introducing a small collection of newly spelled words about every month. Among the first up were agast, burocracy, crum, jocky, and missil. Soon came rime, jaz, and harth. By the following year, there were more than a hundred.

In one issue from April 1934, you could read of a “staf ready to oppose any delay” and a story about Roosevelt “Iland.” A 1938 headline exclaimed: “ROOKIE GOALIE SCORES 6TH HOCKY SHUTOUT.” Public response was “for the most part favorable,” including a letter from someone named Benjamin Affleck who wished the paper would go further.

In the end, “Sane Spelling” never quite caught on. By 1939, the list was trimmed to 40 words, and overall observance was never that thorough to begin with: Reports of Pearl Harbor described an attack on an “island.” Still, it’s hard to say it was a bad idea, and I honestly believe a second try could have more impact in the Internet era, tho old habits do die hard.

John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics, American Studies and Western Civilization at Columbia University; his latest book is What Language Is.