Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

For Freedom of Spelling


It is curious that people do not grumble more at having to spell
correctly. Yet one may ask, Do we not a little over-estimate the value
of orthography? This is a natural reflection enough when the maker of
artless happy phrases has been ransacking the dictionary for some
elusive wretch of a word which in the end proves to be not yet
naturalised, or technical, or a mere local vulgarity; yet one does not
often hear the idea canvassed in polite conversation. Dealers in small
talk, of the less prolific kind, are continually falling back upon the
silk hat or dress suit, or some rule of etiquette or other convention as
a theme, but spelling seems to escape them. The suspicion seems quaint,
but one may almost fancy that an allusion to spelling savoured a little
of indelicacy. It must be admitted, though where the scruples come from
would be hard to say, that there is a certain diffidence even here in
broaching my doubts in the matter. For some inexplicable reason spelling
has become mixed up with moral feeling. One cannot pretend to explain
things in a little paper of this kind; the fact is so. Spelling is not
appropriate or inappropriate, elegant or inelegant; it is right or
wrong. We do not greatly blame a man for turn-down collars when the
vogue is erect; nor, in these liberal days, for theological
eccentricity; but we esteem him "Nithing" and an outcast if he but drop
a "p" from opportunity. It is not an anecdote, but a scandal, if we say
a man cannot spell his own name. There is only one thing esteemed worse
before we come to the deadly crimes, and that is the softening of
language by dropping the aspirate.

After all, it is an unorthodox age. We are all horribly afraid of being
bourgeois, and unconventionality is the ideal of every respectable
person. It is strange that we should cling so steadfastly to correct
spelling. Yet again, one can partly understand the business, if one
thinks of the little ways of your schoolmaster and schoolmistress. This
sanctity of spelling is stamped upon us in our earliest years. The
writer recalls a period of youth wherein six hours a week were given to
the study of spelling, and four hours to all other religious
instruction. So important is it, that a writer who cannot spell is
almost driven to abandon his calling, however urgent the thing he may
have to say, or his need of the incidentals of fame. Yet in the crisis
of such a struggle rebellious thoughts may arise. Even this: Why, after
all, should correct spelling be the one absolutely essential literary
merit? For it is less fatal for an ambitious scribe to be as dull as
Hoxton than to spell in diverse ways.

Yet correct spelling of English has not been traced to revelation; there
was no grammatical Sinai, with a dictionary instead of tables of stone.
Indeed, we do not even know certainly when correct spelling began, which
word in the language was first spelt the right way, and by whom. Correct
spelling may have been evolved, or it may be the creation of some master
mind. Its inventor, if it had an inventor, is absolutely forgotten.
Thomas Cobbett would have invented it, but that he was born more than
two centuries too late, poor man. All that we certainly know is that,
contemporaneously with the rise of extreme Puritanism, the belief in
orthography first spread among Elizabethan printers, and with the
Hanoverian succession the new doctrine possessed the whole length and
breadth of the land. At that time the world passed through what
extension lecturers call, for no particular reason, the classical epoch.
Nature--as, indeed, all the literature manuals testify--was in the
remotest background then of human thought. The human mind, in a mood of
the severest logic, brought everything to the touchstone of an orderly
reason; the conception of "correctness" dominated all mortal affairs.
For instance, one's natural hair with its vagaries of rat's tails,
duck's tails, errant curls, and baldness, gave place to an orderly wig,
or was at least decently powdered. The hoop remedied the deficiencies of
the feminine form, and the gardener clipped his yews into
respectability. All poetry was written to one measure in those days, and
a Royal Academy with a lady member was inaugurated that art might become
at least decent. Dictionaries began. The crowning glory of Hanoverian
literature was a Great Lexicographer.

In those days it was believed that the spelling of every English word
had been settled for all time. Thence to the present day, though the
severities then inaugurated, so far as metre and artistic composition
are concerned, been generously relaxed--though we have had a Whistler, a
Walt Whitman, and a Wagner--the rigours of spelling have continued
unabated. There is just one right way of spelling, and all others are
held to be not simply inelegant or undesirable, but wrong; and
unorthodox spelling, like original morality, goes hand in hand with

Yet even at the risk of shocking the religious convictions of some, may
not one ask whether spelling is in truth a matter of right and wrong at
all? Might it not rather be an art? It is too much to advocate the
indiscriminate sacking of the alphabet, but yet it seems plausible that
there is a happy medium between a reckless debauch of errant letters and
our present dead rigidity. For some words at anyrate may there not be
sometimes one way of spelling a little happier, sometimes another? We do
something of this sort even now with our "phantasy" and "fantasie," and
we might do more. How one would spell this word or that would become, if
this latitude were conceded, a subtle anxiety of the literary exquisite.
People are scarcely prepared to realise what shades of meaning may be
got by such a simple device. Let us take a simple instance. You write,
let us say, to all your cousins, many of your friends, and even, it may
be, to this indifferent intimate and that familiar enemy, "My dear
So-and-so." But at times you feel even as you write, sometimes, that
there is something too much and sometimes something lacking. You may
even get so far in the right way occasionally as to write, "My dr.
So-and-so," when your heart is chill. And people versed in the arts of
social intercourse know the subtle insult of misspelling a person's
name, or flicking it off flippantly with a mere waggling wipe of the
pen. But these are mere beginnings.

Let the reader take a pen in hand and sit down and write, "My very dear
wife." Clean, cold, and correct this is, speaking of orderly affection,
settled and stereotyped long ago. In such letters is butcher's meat also
"very dear." Try now, "Migh verrie deare Wyfe." Is it not immediately
infinitely more soft and tender? Is there not something exquisitely
pleasant in lingering over those redundant letters, leaving each word,
as it were, with a reluctant caress? Such spelling is a soft, domestic,
lovingly wasteful use of material. Or, again, if you have no wife, or
object to an old-fashioned conjugal tenderness, try "Mye owne sweete
dearrest Marrie." There is the tremble of a tenderness no mere
arrangement of trim everyday letters can express in those double
_r's_. "Sweete" my ladie must be; sweet! why pump-water and inferior
champagne, spirits of nitrous ether and pancreatic juice are "sweet."
For my own part I always spell so, with lots of f's and g's and such
like tailey, twirley, loopey things, when my heart is in the tender
vein. And I hold that a man who will not do so, now he has been shown
how to do it, is, in plain English, neither more nor less than a prig.
The advantages of a varied spelling of names are very great.
Industrious, rather than intelligent, people have given not a little
time, and such minds as they have, to the discussion of the right
spelling of our great poet's name. But he himself never dreamt of tying
himself down to one presentation of himself, and was--we have his hand
for it--Shakespeare, Shakspear, Shakespear, Shakspeare, and so forth, as
the mood might be. It would be almost as reasonable to debate whether
Shakespeare smiled or frowned. My dear friend Simmongues is the same.
He is "Sims," a mere slash of the pen, to those he scorns, Simmonds or
Simmongs to his familiars, and Simmons, A.T. Simmons, Esq., to all

From such mere introductory departures from precision, such petty
escapades as these, we would we might seduce the reader into an utter
debauch of spelling. But a sudden Męnad dance of the letters on the
page, gleeful and iridescent spelling, a wild rush and procession of
howling vowels and clattering consonants, might startle the half-won
reader back into orthodoxy. Besides, there is another reader--the
printer's reader--to consider. For if an author let his wit run to these
matters, he must write elaborate marginal exhortations to this
authority, begging his mercy, to let the little flowers of spelling
alone. Else the plough of that Philistine's uniformity will utterly root
them out.

Such high art of spelling as is thus hinted at is an art that has still
to gather confidence and brave the light of publicity. A few, indeed,
practise it secretly for love--in letters and on spare bits of paper.
But, for the most part, people do not know that there is so much as an
art of spelling possible; the tyranny of orthography lies so heavily on
the land. Your common editors and their printers are a mere orthodox
spelling police, and at the least they rigorously blot out all the
delightful frolics of your artist in spelling before his writings reach
the public eye. But commonly, as I have proved again and again, the
slightest lapse into rococo spelling is sufficient to secure the
rejection of a manuscript without further ado.

And to end,--a word about Phonographers. It may be that my title has led
the reader to anticipate some mention of these before. They are a kind
of religious sect, a heresy from the orthodox spelling. They bind one
another by their mysteries and a five-shilling subscription in a
"soseiti to introduis an impruvd method of spelinj." They come across
the artistic vision, they and their Soseiti, with an altogether
indefinable offence. Perhaps the essence of it is the indescribable
meanness of their motive. For this phonography really amounts to a
study of the cheapest way of spelling words. These phonographers are
sweaters of the Queen's English, living meanly on the selvage of honest
mental commerce by clipping the coin of thought. But enough of them.
They are mentioned here only to be disavowed. They would substitute one
narrow orthodoxy for another, and I would unfold the banner of freedom.
Spell, my brethren, as you will! Awake, arise, O language living in
chains; let Butter's spelling be our Bastille! So with a prophetic
vision of liberated words pouring out of the dungeons of a
spelling-book, this plea for freedom concludes. What trivial arguments
there are for a uniform spelling I must leave the reader to discover.
This is no place to carp against the liberation I foresee, with the glow
of the dawn in my eyes.

H.G. Wells