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Top Story:  President Roosevelt "Spells" Doom for "Comptroller" Until Comptroller Ridgely Fights Back

07/10/2014

Comptroller William B. Ridgely

Comptroller William B. Ridgely

By Fleming Saunders
Public Affairs Operations

In August 1906, a vacationing President Theodore Roosevelt took up the cause of spelling reform—one of many pet causes he championed throughout his presidency. But his campaign ran up against the Comptroller of the Currency, who stoutly defended the very title of his own agency.

At the dawn of the 20th century, an “Efficiency Movement,” was sweeping the United States. Inspired by the effort to reduce waste in society, the president felt the need to make words more concise and less cumbersome. He picked up the banner of the Simplified Spelling Board, a blue-chip committee of authors, professors, and dictionary editors. Funded by steel titan Andrew Carnegie, the committee recommended that 300 common English words be stripped of unnecessary letters.

Roosevelt, writing from his summer home in Oyster Bay, New York, ordered the Government Printing Office to use the 300 recommended spellings in all government publications of the executive departments. He portrayed the reform as “an attempt to ... make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

Among the “foolish and fantastic” words was “comptroller.” It was slated to become “controller,” resurrecting a European spelling from sometime around the 15th century. Both spellings and pronunciations were generally accepted as correct since then. But with the Roosevelt edict, “Comp”troller of the Currency seemed doomed.

The holder of the title did not agree. Comptroller William Ridgely and his agency stood their ground against not just the president and leading scholars of the day—but also their own Treasury Department. The department had at least two comptrollers in those days. One of them—the Comptroller of the Treasury (now part of the General Accountability Office)—complied with the president and changed its name to “Controller.”

The orthographic squabble at Treasury drew the attention of a House Appropriations Committee hearing on December 10, 1906. Representative James Tawney queried witness Charles Young, foreman of printing at the Government Printing Office.

Mr. Tawney: I notice in the report of Comptroller of the Treasury the spelling is “Controller.”

Mr. Young: He sanctioned that.

Mr. Tawney: The Comptroller of the Currency refused to accept the form of spelling for his office?

Mr. Young: Yes, sir; He stands on the ground that the statute calls him Comptroller instead of Controller.

The Roosevelt spelling proposals attracted much ridicule in editorials and cartoons on both sides of the Atlantic. A printing office history reports that “the Supreme Court entered the fray and directed that its opinions should be printed in the old style.” On December 13, 1906, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution opposing the controversial spelling changes and stating that the “Government Printing Office should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

Faced with defeat, the president rescinded his order. As a result, “through” never become “thru” in federal documents. “Addressed” did not shrink to “addrest.” And, of course, “Comptroller” of the Currency never became “Controller” of the Currency.

And the president kept his sense of humor about the whole thing. The next year, he was watching a naval review when the media poked fun at the speller-in-chief by titling its boat PRES BOT. The president “waved and laughed with delight” as it passed by.

For more on the origins of the word “comptroller,” check out the SuperVisions article in the Related Links.

Last Updated: 08/09/2014