History Vs. Episode 5: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Language
Have you ever looked at a word—like although, for example—and thought: There are just too many letters in this word? If so, congratulations: You have a little something in common with Theodore Roosevelt, author of more than 30 books and 150,000 letters.
You know who else thought there were just too many letters in English words? Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
In 1906, Carnegie created, and financially supported, the Simplified Spelling Board. According to The New York Times, Carnegie thought that English had the potential to be “the world language of the future,” and that would help lead to world peace.
But according to the Board, English was “handicapped by one thing and one only—its intricate and disordered spelling, which makes it a puzzle to the stranger within our gates and a mystery to the stranger beyond the seas.”
The Board decided to pursue a course of reform by omission: Drop letters that were unpronounced or deemed unnecessary. Teaching would be made easier, written correspondence would be faster, printing would be more efficient, not to mention cheaper. One publisher estimated that using Simplified Spelling in the publishing business would save up to $40 million—which is over a billion dollars in today’s money.
The Board’s proposed reforms were published and somehow found their way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that what the board was proposing made a lot of sense.
He threw his support behind their reforms, which included chopping although from A-L-T-H-O-U-G-H to A-L-T-H-O and knocking the extra S’s and ED’s from words like missed and kissed so that they were spelled M-I-S-T and K-I-S-T, respectively. P-H-A-N-T-O-M became F-A-N-T-O-M. Cats wouldn’t P-U-R-R, they’d P-U-R. And so on.
But on August 27, 1906, when TR signed an Executive Order that made the Board’s spelling reforms required in government documents, he never could have predicted how controversial his actions would be.
Simplified Spelling wasn’t the only way TR took on language in his life—he warped the pronunciation of words to get noticed, coined iconic phrases, and used the English language as a political tool. Just how did he use language to achieve his desired ends? We’re about to find out.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR vs. Language.
By the time he became president, Theodore Roosevelt was a master of many languages: He could read in French, German, Italian, and Latin (though he called reading in Latin “dreary labor”). He also spoke French and German, although his French was, in the words of his Secretary of State John Hay, “lawless as to grammar.”
He also had a very unusual speaking style—so unusual that, according to Edmund Morris, it “has the effect of burying his remarks, like shrapnel, in the memory of the listener.” Once they hear what he’s said to them, they don’t forget it.
Arika Okrent: It seems like he did have a very distinctive way of talking since it was remarked upon by people who wrote about it, and they noticed it. So it must've been … seemed a little odd or strange.
That’s Arika Okrent, linguist and Mental Floss contributor, and the person I call whenever I have a question about language.
There are some recordings of Roosevelt speaking, but as Okrent notes, most of what we know about how he spoke is through other people writing about it. And whenever they talked about how he spoke, they also usually talked about his teeth, so we’ll continue that fine tradition here.
According to Morris, Roosevelt’s “white and even” teeth would “chop every word into neat syllables, sending them forth perfectly formed but separate, in a jerky staccatissimo that has no relation to the normal rhythms of speech.”
One of TR’s colleagues summed it up by saying, “I always think of a man biting tenpenny nails when I think of Roosevelt making a speech.”
His manner of speaking led some to believe that he’d had a speech impediment as a kid. A college classmate noted that when they deliberately riled him up, he would “sometimes lose altogether the power of articulation,” and according to a colleague in the New York State Assembly, “he would open his mouth and run out his tongue and it was hard for him to speak.” Morris notes that his diction was “syncopated … sibilants hiss out like escaping steam; plosives drive the lips apart with an audible pfft.”
Okrent: Plosive P, I imagine would be like an extreme build up. So a Ppp, a lot of air coming out, maybe some spit, very forceful. P-Powerful.
Whatever the reason for how he spoke, Roosevelt leaned into it. As a young assemblyman, he’d warp the pronunciation of the word speaker, yelling “MR. SPEE-KAR, MR. SPEE-KAR!” over and over, sometimes for 40 minutes, to get the speaker’s attention.
Okrent: “This is what everyone else in Congress sounds like,” or, “This is what everyone else in New York high society sounds like.” I guess he would be picking up on that, but he used these devices to get attention, and maybe he also bristled against the elocution training that they did back then. If you went to school, and they did this at Harvard, you had elocution lessons where they taught you how to pronounce things, and do public speaking, and the right gestures to make when you do public speaking, and the right way to breathe and hold your body. And maybe he bristled against that, or maybe thought it was too British, or I don’t know...
Interestingly, when he was out in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s, TR changed his way of speaking, too. In his book Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, Roger L. Di Silvestro quotes the Pioneer Press as writing that “The slow exasperating drawl and the unique accent the New Yorker feels he must use when visiting a less blessed portion of civilization have disappeared, and in their place is a nervous, energetic manner of talking with the flat accent of the West.”
Whether or not Roosevelt was a good public speaker is up for debate. In the 1940s, a grad student named William Auburn Behl put that question to those who had known him, and the reviews were … not favorable. Jeremy C. Young, author of the book The Age of Charisma, put these reviews together in a blog post.
One person called TR’s gesticulations and his high-pitched voice “terrible,” while another said he “wasn’t a great speaker but one felt the force and magnetism of his personality and … his great honesty and genuineness.” As one journalist noted in 1900, “Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel as a campaigner, more from his tremendous strength, energy, force, and endurance than from finish and grace of delivery or diction.”
Young notes that, in Roosevelt’s era, most public figures, like William Jennings Bryan, used an emotional style of speaking called “personal magnetism.” But this was precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt learned at Harvard from his rhetoric teacher, Adams Sherman Hill, who said that “our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them.”
Young says that Roosevelt’s speeches “were often dry, equivocal, and monotonous,” because he’d revise them over and over and then read the typed speeches rather than speaking off the cuff, as Bryan did.
But make no mistake: Even if his speeches could be dull, TR definitely had a way with words. He coined terms and phrases that we still use today, like “bully pulpit,” “nailing jelly to a wall”—he actually said “They might just as well ask me why I do not nail currant jelly to the wall”—and the political usage of “my hat is in the ring.”
Supposedly he’s the one who called Maxwell House coffee “good to the last drop.”
One phrase we all think of when we think of TR is “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” He said it was a West African proverb he was fond of, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it was actually a West African proverb.
He popularized many other words and phrases, like "strong as a bull moose," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," and "pussyfooting." He also popularized the phrase “weasel words,” which originally referenced the legend that a weasel can suck the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell intact. He said he heard a friend’s brother use it in reference to another person who could, in the brother’s words, “take a word and weasel it around and suck the meat out of it like a weasel sucks the meat out of an egg, until it don't mean anything at all, no matter what it sounds like it means.”
It’s a favorite phrase of Okrent’s.
Okrent: It's a metalinguistic look at language. This person is speaking this way, and the things they're doing with their words are weaselly, or the words aren't bearing meaning in the way they should. That's interesting in a sort of the pre-Orwell way of looking at what people do with words, and how they work with words, and manipulate with words.
We’ll be right back.
TR also used language to craft devastatingly colorful insults: One supreme court justice was “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” while frequent presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.”
Roosevelt called novelist Henry James a “little emasculated mass of inanity” while Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams was a “true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.” A blatherskite, by the way, is someone who talks a lot without making a lot of sense. Burn.
This mastery of language may not have been evident in all of TR’s speeches, but it was definitely present in some of them. There’s a reason why his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Man in the Arena,” is still quoted more than a century after it was delivered:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
But it can’t all be eloquent speeches and dee-lightful insults and catchy phrases. In his correspondence, Roosevelt used derogatory language and slurs in regards to other races and nationalities. Thomas G. Dyer addresses TR’s use of language like this in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, noting that, “While TR seemed to derive considerable pleasure from the frequent private use of racial and ethnic epithets, he rarely used the terms in public … The extent of this language and the frequency of its usage indicates the preoccupation with racial differences that Roosevelt and his contemporaries had, but it also suggests Roosevelt’s professed objectivity in matters of race should not always be taken at face value.”
Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s mentor, sometimes scrubbed that language, along with some of TR’s insults, from their published correspondence, so Lodge must have known that its use would not have painted TR in the best light.
Roosevelt also felt, in his words, that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He believed that immigrants loyal to America should assimilate completely and be required to learn English, and that only English should be taught in schools.
In a 1916 speech to the National Americanization Committee, Roosevelt said that immigrants should become fully Americanized by learning English. This, he said, would give them more opportunities in America, and they wouldn’t be seen “only as an industrial asset.”
“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it,” Roosevelt said. “Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back.”
This type of attitude, according to Okrent, doesn’t reflect the reality of what actually happens when immigrants come to America.
Okrent: It does look kind of scary I guess when there's a lot of immigrants coming in at once, which there was at the turn of the century, and you go to neighborhoods where everyone's speaking Italian, or you go to towns in Wisconsin, everyone's speaking German and you think, “Oh no, what is this going to do to our national identity?” But looking at one snapshot like that doesn't show the whole picture, which is from generation to generation, things change very rapidly, and it's in the direction toward English. You don't have to do much to make that happen. The first generation, the old folks, they might never really learn English, and then their kids will be bilingual, and then their kids will be fully English speakers and even forget the original language. These days, that's even frustrating for families that their kids, their grandkids don't keep up the old language, and then they lose it. The pressures of English are so great, and kids are so adept at learning language and giving over to whatever the majority culture is that they learn it, and it seems unnecessary to mandate it or make it some sort of requirement or law. Um, even today it’s a great thing about our country that we have access to a lot of people who speak a lot of languages, and that's useful. When we need native speakers of a language, we have them, they're citizens. And there's no reason to try to stamp that out.
Not to mention the fact that English is a frequent borrower of words from other languages.
Okrent: English is not picky about what it will let in or accept. We don't have an academy. We don't have … you know, we don’t have to vote on whether we want to let this word in or not. People just start using it, and that makes the language really robust.
In fact, one TR’s favorite words was borrowed from another language. We’re talking, of course, about bully.
Okrent: That apparently comes from a Dutch word originally meaning, like, mate or brother, my buddy, my friend. It was first this term of endearment, and then it meant sort of a ruffian, and then it was specifically the guy who protects prostitutes, and eventually to what we have today. But it didn't come from English.
And then there are languages like German, which has so many words for which there’s no English equivalent. My favorite is kummerspeck, a term for the weight you gain from emotional overeating that literally translates to grief bacon.
Okrent: Yeah, and angst, and all of that schadenfreude, all the things we totally make good use of. McCarthy: Yeah. We’ve just got to keep letting those words come in. Okrent: Mm Hmm.
Before we get back to Simplified Spelling— the system by which words are reduced to their most basic expression in spelling, a system that TR championed—I want to take one quick diversion.
In May 1918, TR went to Springfield, Massachusetts, on a mission: To honor those Boy Scouts of Troop 13 who had sold $1000-worth of war bonds. It was there that he—a current titan of language—had an encounter with a future titan of language.
There were 10 boys being honored that May afternoon in the town’s municipal auditorium. As Donald E. Pease writes, “Roosevelt went down the line congratulating each of the young men, repeating a laudatory statement praising each boy’s accomplishment and pinning a medal on the honoree’s chest. … Each presentation was met with thunderous applause.”
There was a problem, though. TR had only nine medals.
So when Roosevelt came upon the 10th boy on stage, and had no medal to pin to his lapel, the understandably confused former president bellowed to the scoutmaster, “What’s this little boy doing here?”
The boy’s scoutmaster didn’t stop to explain the situation, just whisked young Theodor Geisel off-stage. The incident gave the future Dr. Seuss terrible stage fright, and honestly, who can blame him?
TR wasn’t the first person to support a phonetic spelling system—Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Brigham Young had all advocated for spelling reform. Noah Webster, for example, is probably the main reason the letter U was removed from spellings of American words and the Cs were replaced with Ses, which are distinguishing features between American and British English. Then again, he also suggested we spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N and women W-I-M-M-E-N, so, you know, they can’t all be winners.
So when Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in August 1906 directing the Government Printing Office to use the board’s proposed spelling system—what he called an effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic”—he was in pretty good company.
The Simplified Spelling board was thrilled for sure: They even released a “Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book”—that’s phonetic with an F—after the order.
And here’s the thing: The Simplified Spelling Board, Webster, Roosevelt—they all may have been onto something … kind of.
Okrent: You know, if you ever meet Dutch people, or German people, they speak such good English, it can't be that difficult cause people do manage it. But it does have a reputation of certain parts of it being difficult, and a big one is the spelling. You have to learn it. You can't just get a few rules of thumb and then follow that like you can with most other languages. You just have to memorize all these spellings. Your engineering mind goes, like, “We could do this over, we could make this so much better. Why not?”
Well … here’s why not: Simplified Spelling looks ridiculous.
Okrent: If you already know how to read and write, you're just … you’re never going to accept these simplified spellings. It looks so funny. It looks like … you know, like a cat wrote it or something. Our spelling is just embedded in our education, and we're used to it. And sure, you know, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds might be able to do better with phonetic spelling, they probably would. But our educational process is the process of bringing children into what we already do. And um, it's really hard to get over just the comic look of it.
And that’s exactly what the press and critics latched onto after Roosevelt signed the executive order. The backlash was immediate.
We’re going to take a quick break.
After Roosevelt signed his executive order mandating simplified spelling in government documents, everyone freaked out.
A paper in Kentucky wrote, in barely legible spelling, “Nuthing”—N-U-T-H-I-N-G—“escapes Mr. Rucevelt”—R-U-C-E-V-E-L-T. “No subject is tu hi fr”—that’s T-U H-I F-R—“him to takle”—T-A-K-L-E—“nor tu lo”—that’s T-U L-O—“for him tu notis”—spelled T-U N-O-T-I-S. “He makes tretis”—T-R-E-T-I-S—“without the consent of the Senit,” S-E-N-I-T. “He enforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales”—F-A-L-E-S—"to se”—S-E—"those that du not soot”—do spelled D-U, suit spelled spelled S-O-O-T— “him … He now assales”—A-S-S-A-L-E-S—“the English langgwidg”—“L-A-N-G-G-W-I-D-G”— “constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot”—T-U S-O-O-T—"himself.”
The reaction overseas wasn’t any better. One English paper wrote, “Here is the language of 80 million suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase”—that’s a Russian word for arbitrary command, by the way, and it’s usually reserved to describe the actions of a czar. The paper went on to say, “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?” while another raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”
Amidst the brouhaha, The New York Times said that, “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.”
Okrent: It's actually harder to read a long text in simplified spelling because you have to stop and sound it out, and we don't do that when we read after, you know, first, second grade. And that makes it actually harder.
It’s no wonder TR wanted to simplify spelling. Though he supposedly had a photographic memory, he was a notoriously bad speller—in fact, his wife, Edith, joked that he supported the system because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”
Roosevelt spun the order as an experiment, writing that if the “slight changes” to the 300 words garnered popular approval, they would “become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual citizens may feel.” If they were not popular, he said the spellings would be dropped—spelled D-R-O-P-T—concluding, “and that it all there is about it.”
But in the end, what Roosevelt wanted didn’t really matter—no one was having his strange spellings. The Supreme Court refused to follow his order, and in December 1906, Congress voted to get rid of simplified spelling, writing—in normal spelling—that the government’s documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”
Clearly defeated, TR withdrew his executive order, writing to simplified spelling proponent Brander Matthews, “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in. And it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten … But I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.”
Spelling finally returned to normal.
But if you think about it, in a way, Roosevelt was ahead of his time—the proof is in your text messages, where T-H-O-U-G-H is almost certainly shortened to T-H-O.
So if you’re looking to get noticed, here’s a TR pro-tip: Play around with pitch, punch those plosives, and instead of a demure “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, a loud “ex-skwas-me!” might do. And on that note … TTYL!
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.
This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.
The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.
The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Arika Okrent.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs. That’s MentalFloss.com slash H I S T O R Y V S.
History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.