Word Play – Spell-checking the Constitution

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, October 23rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. One week from today, we will have our regular Listener Feedback segment. So if you have something you want to tell us, now’s your chance! 

We love getting emails and connecting with you on social media. But we can’t play those messages on the program.

REICHARD: That’s why we especially like getting audio feedback. 

You can do that one of two ways: Call our feedback line at 202-709-9595. Or record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to us.

BROWN: Simple enough. Alright, coming next on The World and Everything in It: Word Play with George Grant. 

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: When the text of the Constitution was first composed in 1787, it was written in the manner of the day. In other words, it was handwritten—with a goose quill pen dipped in oak gall ink inscribed on fine parchment. According to the supervising conservator at the National Archives in Washington, that original copy, with its distinctively classical calligraphy, was engrossed by Jacob Shallus, one of the official stenographers at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Without the benefit of a spell-checker app, Shallus inevitably made a few spelling mistakes—mistakes that survive in the revered document to this day. To err is human after all.

For instance, in the list of signatories, the word “Pennsylvania” is misspelled with a single “n” in the first syllable. The state’s correct spelling does appear in Article 1, Section 2, making the contradiction all the more noticeable—and embarrassing. Shallus after all, was from Pennsylvania. And he served as the clerk for its State Assembly.

There may have been some consolation for him in the fact that it was apparently a common enough mistake in 18th century America—even the inscription on the Liberty Bell immortalizes the misspelling.

Another snafu Shallus made in the Constitution was a common enough one: in Article 1, Section 10, he spelled the word “it’s” with an apostrophe, as if the word were a contraction of “it is.” But the word is used as a possessive, and thus, it should have been spelled without the apostrophe.

On several occasions, Shallus spells the word “choose,” with a “u” rather than with the customary “double-o.” To modern eyes, this looks like an obvious mistake. Actually, it was an acceptable alternate spelling in the 18th century. American spelling standards then, as now, were inconsistent at best.

Not surprisingly, Shallus also used the British spelling for a number of words: “defence,” spelled with a “c” instead of an “s” and “controul” and “labour” both spelled with “ou” diphthongs rather than with a single “o.” Again though, these were acceptable alternate spellings in the former colonies.

Pondering these lexicographic oddities reminded me of Mark Twain’s delightful quip: “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”

I’m George Grant.


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