Why does the G in Margaret sound different from the G in margarine? Why does C begin both case and cease? And why is it funny when a philologist faints, but not phunny to laf about it? English spelling is notoriously clumsy, with its surfeit of silent letters, fickle i’s before e’s, and cruelly innumerable variations on there. On March 11, 1906, a group of intellectuals—Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Holt among them—founded the Simplified Spelling Board, an organization set on reforming English’s thorny inconsistencies upon one simple motto: “Simplification by omission.” That spring, the board submitted a list of 300 new spellings for immediate adoption. A sample appears below:
Theodore Roosevelt loved the new spellings. In August, he ordered the U.S. Government Printing Office to use them in all official documents issued by the executive department. Public reaction, however, was not so enthusiastic. Newspapers roundly mocked the Board’s proposal, and in December 1906 the House of Representatives passed a resolution denouncing the new spellings and ensuring continued use of standard English orthography. The simplified spelling movement never gained momentum and gradually fizzled over the next decade. But it would have a renaissance in an unlikely place: modern texting vernacular. With abridgements like thru and tho, textspeak follows the same omission-based maxim that governed the Simplified Spelling Board. Those wackadoo reformers—once the target of ridicule— had the last laf.