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1975 Twenty-five Years Ago

April 2018

Textual Perversity in Chicago

On September 29, the nation’s roster of English-language newspapers increased by one as the Chicago Tribune abandoned its use of “simplified” spelling, a quixotic experiment that for more than four decades had left Chicagoans puzzling out oddities like thruout and thorofare over their morning coffee. The policy had been adopted in January 1934 by Col. Robert McCormick, the paper’s colorful owner, in reaction against standard English orthography, which the paper called an “unspeakable offense to common sense.” (As early as the 1870s, in fact, at the instigation of McCormick’s grandfather Joseph Medill, the Tribune had tried out such spellings as favorit, but the effort was abandoned.) The changes McCormick instituted ran from the sensible ( tranquility for tranquillity ) to the pointless ( hocky for hockey ) to the arcane ( apolog for apologue ) to the deranged ( aile for aisle ).

Some of the changes were prompted by an understandable preference for Midwestern pronunciation, including drouth for drought , a choice that inspired some controversy. The wife of Rufus C. Dawes, a utility magnate and president of the Chicago World’s Fair, wrote: “There are people who say ‘droughth’ and who also say ‘heighth,’ but they have fallen into a careless habit in doing so. Both words end in ‘t’ and are pronounced ‘drout’ and ‘hite.’” In defense of its decision, the Tribune cited passages from Swinburne and Browning as well as the testimony of Paul Potter, the paper’s agricultural editor, that “In Iowa, my native state, the usual pronunciation was and is ‘drouth.’” For similar reasons, advertisment was adopted for advertisement so that “even the untutored will be more likely to place the stress on the second sylabl.” Genuinely yielded to genuinly , a spelling that “not only saves a letter but helps foreigners to avoid the mispronunciation gen-u-ineIy—the ine as in whine.”

McCormick hoped that his changes would spark a nationwide movement. As years went by, however, it became clear that waiting for Americans to adopt Tribune spelling was like waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series. In August 1955, a few months after McCormick’s death, the Tribune abandoned some of its more egregious reforms, such as frate for freight and sodder for solder . Two more decades would pass before the Tribune gave up on altho , thro (for through ), and various other enduring idiosyncrasies.