News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Liz Ciancone

March 6, 2012

LIZ CIANCONE: And why didn’t they call him ‘Kernel’?

A brief article recently in the Chicago Tribune reminded me of a noble experiment which flopped.

The late Col. Robert McCormick, owner of the “Trib,” launched a crusade against what he said was the “unspeakable offence” of English spelling. I was still in grade school, struggling with spelling on a daily basis, so I thought it was a splendid idea. The idea never caught on and after 40 years, the colonel and the Trib threw in the towel.

The article gave examples from Tribune headlines during the period. I had no trouble deciphering “New Break-Thru by Reds,” but puzzled over “Shoe Clew in Strangling.” Even after I figured that one out, I wondered about the unequal, almost whimsical, inconsistency. If “clue” becomes “clew,” why isn’t “shoe” respelled “shew”? How about “clu” and “shu” in the interest of a reliable rule? If the problem was “a monster cruelty” of spelling, shouldn’t there be rules?

Spelling is confusing enough. English has an added problem of words which sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. There are three ways to spell “2,” for example: “two” gives us the number,  while “too” means also, and “to” means toward. We could adopt a single spelling for all three, but we’d be left wondering exactly what was meant. It would definitely slow speed readers, and I’m already confused enough.

The original list of offensive spellings had only 24 words, but the list grew rapidly. Often dropped an ending double consonant made sense, as in “stif” or “sheri.f” Or maybe only a final consonant was dropped like the “k” in “hammoc” or “hassoc.” Double letters everywhere got the eye. Do we need two “r’s” to understand “warrant”? But, if we kill the second “r” why did the colonel keep two “m’s” in “hammoc”? The project was doomed, but spelling textbook publishers might have cleaned up!

I have used my own version of the new spelling when I was an active reporter. Interviewees can talk faster than I can write and I failed to study shorthand. To assure accurate quotes, I had my own spelling shorthand which had to be transcribed quickly before I forgot what I intended. That’s the trouble with earning a living as a word merchant — or do I mean werd merchent? — you are so aware of words.

The colonel died in 1955, and his crusade died with him although the Tribune didn’t toss in the towel completely until 1975.

I wonder what the colonel would have done with a word like “bookkeeping”?

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