Andrew Carnegie Known For Wealth, Libraries — And Spelling?

andrew_carnegieWhen the name Andrew Carnegie is mentioned, people often think of the boy immigrant from Scotland who became the wealthiest man in the United States. Of course, he was more than a rich industrialist, he was also the philanthropist who founded thousands of public libraries worldwide.

As author of the Gospel of Wealth he implored the wealthy to follow his example and give all their money away before they died.

He also had a nearly decade-long obsession with simplifying the English language. He wanted to streamline the spelling of hundreds of words — and he had the backing of a U.S. president.

Simplified Spelling Board

After acquiring his enormous wealth, Carnegie pursued several passions, but by far his most pressing concern was world peace. He set out to create a United Nations type of international board because he felt man had evolved to an intellectual level that made war unnecessary. It was because of his desire for world peace that spelling became a side hustle. He believed English eventually would be the language of the world — and the language could be used to promote peace — if some pesky words were revised.

So, in 1906, he established the Simplified Spelling Board — committing $15,000 annually (more than $350,000 in today’s money) until his death in 1919.

The New York Times wrote a piece listing board members (including Mark Twain and Oxford Professor James Murray) noting the organization’s goals.

They do not intent to urge any violent alteration in the appearance of familiar words. They will not advance any extreme theories. They will not expect to accomplish their task in a day or in a year. They wish, in brief, to expedite that process of simplification which has been going on in English, in spite of the opposition of conservatives, ever since the invention of printing, notably in the omission of silent and useless letters.

Political Uproar

The board wanted to introduce 300 revised words to the public. Some of the new spellings included dropping the ‘i’ out of believe (beleve) and changing words that ended in ‘-ed’ to ‘t’ (shipped would become ‘shipt.’) President Theodore Roosevelt, who had close ties to Carnegie, championed the cause by issuing an executive order requiring the revised spellings to be used in all communication from his office. Congress was not amused. They passed a resolution a few months later stating Congress would only use spelling found in accepted dictionaries.

Carnegie Disillusioned

In the end, the Spelling Board moved too slowly for Carnegie. When he died in 1919, Carnegie omitted the organization from his will, essentially bankrupting them. The board disbanded a year later, but not before publishing the Handbook of Simplified Spelling which was written using the revised  words.

You can read it online (free) here.

Learn More

Efforts to improve the spelling of English words have been underway since 1755 when Samuel Johnson published his scholarly dictionary. The dictionary relied on the word’s origin to determine its spelling ignoring common spellings. This short article by Dr. Edward Rondthaler examines the spelling movement up to the current era.

Categories: American History

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