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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/274

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

whether relating to spelling or to anything else, need to be pulled gently, periodically and patiently. They are proof against argument, dictation, ridicule, legislation or physical force; but they will slowly yield if pulled in the right way and in the right succession.

However important may have been the influence of half-educated printers in the fastening of a hereditary spelling disease upon the users of the English language, the responsibility does not rest wholly upon them. Like other people, printers endeavor to adapt themselves to popular demands. The great classical schools of England have done much to infuse Latin and Greek into the language and to cultivate classical forms of spelling. Against the orthographic riot due to the early printers a reaction was inevitable. They gradually discarded many of the worst word forms that had been brought into use, but in the selection of surviving forms they had but small guidance from competent scholars. An approach toward uniformity was made, but it was under the domination of conservatism rather than reason or consistency, and popular habits were formed with no regard for simplicity or etymology. In the earlier English dictionaries by Bailey and Johnson very little was done to correct the prevailing inconsistencies. Johnson's great force of character made him a power among men. His knowledge of Latin was exceptional, but of etymology he knew little and cared less. As a lexicographer he was narrow, prejudiced and illogical. His dictionary was made the basis of Walker's dictionary, which in time attained wide currency on both sides of the Atlantic.

In all of these dictionaries it was apparently assumed that the function of the lexicographer is to record and define the words in current use, but not to search out or expose inconsistencies. The incongruities of our language make the dictionary more important as a reference book than it deserves to be. To this day multitudes of people accept without question what they find as allowed spelling in Webster or Worcester; and they resent any criticism upon what they consider to be established by the favorite standard.

What then are we to do about it?

The first and most important thing is to recognize the facts of human nature and the conservation of energy. This has been done by a small band of scholarly men, who have become incorporated during the year just ended as the Simplified Spelling Board, and to whom has been given the practical support of Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. This board recognizes the futility of trying to coerce the public, of trying to change the alphabet, of trying to secure immediate phonetic spelling, of advocating any radical changes, however desirable these may be theoretically. It has no intention of trying to set the pendulum into motion by breaking the thread. Its chief object is to attract the attention of the public to the history and present condition