11 Historical Figures Who Were Really Bad At Spelling

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Do you struggle with spelling bees? Do you always seem to get “lose” and “loose” mixed up? Would you recoil in terror if spell-check ever stopped working? Fear not: You're in good company. From Nobel Prize winners to the authors of great literary works, the inability to spell correctly has plagued some of history's most influential people. Here are 11 of the most famous.

1. JANE AUSTEN

Luckily, the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice was always fortunate enough to find editors who could weed out her various alphabetical mishaps. An early work, written when Austen was 14, was called Love and Freindship.

2. GEORGE WASHINGTON

According to Richard Lederer in his book More Anguished English, the man who would become the first American president wrote “we find our Necessaties are not such as to require an immediate transportation during the harvist" while complaining about a supply shortage during the Revolutionary War. The National Archives cautions, however, that for many letters from 1787 to 1790, the spelling issues are actually the result of his nephew copying them: “The mistaken impression shared by some that the mature GW was a bad speller and careless writer derives in large part from the defects of Lewis and other copyists.”

3. WINSTON CHURCHILL

Though he later became universally regarded as one of the greatest orators of all time, one of Churchill's early report cards said “Writing good, but so terribly slow—spelling about as bad as it well can be.”

4. AGATHA CHRISTIE

“Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me... [I was] an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” It's incredible to think that this humbling statement came from the pen of one of the greatest mystery authors of all time: a woman who would later be celebrated as “The Queen of Crime." Later researchers have proposed that Christie could have been dysgraphic (and possibly dyslexic) [PDF].

5. ANDREW JACKSON

Examples of Old Hickory's seemingly innumerable botched spelling attempts include the continent of “Urope" and performing before a “larg audianc.” This ineptitude even went on to become a political punchline. His perennial political rival John Quincy Adams once denounced him as “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

6. ALBERT EINSTEIN

In Einstein's defense, English was his second language. It's therefore easy to understand why spelling and grammatical errors in his works were a constant source of frustration to the physicist. “I cannot write in English,” he wrote to a friend, “because of the treacherous spelling.”

7. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Hemingway seemed to have difficulty with present participles, as “loving” became “loveing” and “moving” turned into “moveing” in his manuscripts. Whenever an editor complained of these bloopers, however, Hemingway would supposedly snap “Well, that's what you're hired to correct!”

8. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

The original draft of The Great Gatsby contained literally hundreds of spelling mistakes, some of which are still confounding editors. These include “yatch” (instead of “yacht”) and “apon” (instead of “upon”). One of his most famous gaffes, which occurs toward the end of the novel, inspires debate to this day.

9. OLIVIA CLEMENS

“Livy's” frequent compositional errors were an endless source of amusement to her husband Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. After receiving one of her letters, in which she miraculously made virtually no bloopers, he wrote “Oh you darling little speller!—you spell 'terrible' right, this time. And I won't have it—it is un-Livy-ish. Spell it wrong, next time, for I love everything that is like Livy. Maybe it is wrong for me to put a premium on bad spelling, but I can’t help it if it is. Somehow I love it in you—I have grown used to it, accustomed to expect it, & I honestly believe that if, all of a sudden, you fell to spelling every word right, I should feel a pain, as if something very dear to me had been mysteriously spirited away & lost to me. I am not poking fun at you, little sweetheart.” Despite Samuel's playful jabs, he relied upon his beloved wife as a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor” until her death in 1904.

10. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

According to biographer David A. Ross, “Yeats' spelling, indeed, seems at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork.” Ouch. The great Irish poet and senator's idiosyncratic writing style resulted in some distinctively misspelled words cropping up throughout his works, such as “feal” instead of “feel." Despite this Achilles' heel, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

11. DAN QUAYLE

No list of famously bad spellers would be complete without mentioning the 44th Vice President's infamous “Potatoe Incident." The story goes that Quayle had the incorrect spelling on a cue card from the school—but perhaps ironically, Quayle may have ensured that everyone else spelled the word correctly. According to Ammon Shea, consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, potatoe was used in respectable publications right up to the Quayle incident, when, according to Shea, “they suddenly drop off or become used in an ironic way, referencing this incident. Quayle may have misspelled the word, but in doing so perhaps he taught the rest of us how to not make his error.”

This piece originally ran in 2016.

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

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iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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