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Spell a word only one way (Spurious Quotation)
Quotation: "I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way."
- "You should never trust a man who has only one way to spell a word."
- "Pity the man who can spell a word only one way."
- "I never met a man so narrow that he can spell a word in only one way."
Sources consulted: Searching on the phrase "spell a word"
- Monticello website
- Ford's Works of Thomas Jefferson
- L&B (CD-ROM version)
- UVA EText Jefferson Digital Archive: Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government, Texts by or to Thomas Jefferson from the Modern English Collection
- Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress
- Thomas Jefferson Retirement Papers
- The Quotable Jefferson (searching in the index under "spelling")
- Bartleby.com: Quotations
Earliest known appearance in print: 1880 (see Comments below).1
Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: 19832
Other attributions: Andrew Jackson; Mark Twain; G.K. Chesterton; W.C. Fields
Comments: We currently have no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, "I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way," or any variation thereof. Jefferson's recorded comments on the subject of spelling would suggest that his opinions ran counter to the quotation in question. For example, he wrote to his daughter in 1783, "Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word consider how it is spelt, and if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well."3 In 1813 he wrote to John Wilson, who had proposed a system of orthography reform for the English language, "the want of conformity between the combinations of letters, and the sounds they should represent increases to foreigners the difficulty of acquiring the language, occasions great loss of time to children in learning to read, and renders correct spelling rare but in those who read much."4
This saying and other similar variations have been attributed to numerous people, as well as appearing in print as an anonymous witticism. The Yale Book of Quotations traces its print origins back to at least 1880;5 Ralph Keyes, in The Quote Verifier, concludes that it is simply an "old gag."6
- Anna Berkes, 8/18/08; updated 7/20/16
- Quote Investigator. "No Respect for a Man Who Can Spell a Word Only One Way." An article from the Quote Investigator blog, examining the origins of this quotation.
- 1. To establish the earliest appearance of this phrase in print, the following sources were searched for the phrase, "spell a word only one way": Google Books, Google Scholar, Amazon.com, Internet Archive, America's Historical Newspapers, American Broadsides and Ephemera Series I, Early American Imprints Series I and II, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, American Periodicals Series Online, JSTOR.
- 2. Peter McWilliams, The Word Processing Book: A Short Course in Computer Literacy (Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1983), 57.
- 3. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, November 28, 1783, in PTJ, 6:359-61. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 4. Jefferson to John Wilson, August 17, 1813, in PTJ:RS, 6:413-15. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 5. Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 782.
- 6. Ralph Keyes, The Quote Verifier (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006), 207.