If you learn about attempts at spelling reform in English, you’re bound to come across Noah Webster’s suggestions. Webster is considered the grandfather of American English since he had such a profound influence on it in the early days. His Blue-backed speller (basically a school grammar book) went through 385 editions and sold 60 million copies. Holy cow! And his dictionary? Well, that old thing is still being updated and it still has his name on it.
Some of Webster’s spelling reforms stuck. He’s the reason US English doesn’t spell honor, color or neighbor with a u. But others not so much. He suggested spelling women as wimmin. I’m sure he meant well, but try saying that out loud and not sounding like a person who definitely doesn’t like women. He suggested korus for chorus and dawter for daughter. You can see the idea behind these suggestions – they simplify the relationship between sound and spelling. The only reason they look wrong or strange to us is because they didn’t catch on. We learned that daughter was spelled with “augh” instead of “aw” and so everything else looks rong (or “wrong”).
And that brings us to another one of Webster’s suggestions that didn’t catch on… or didn’t catch on yet! In a similar fashion to korus and dawter and honor and color, Webster suggested that we spell machine as masheen. Looks fine to me! But of course, we all know that no one spells it that way. And that’s because we’re still in the first century of the millennium. We’re going to have to wait another 500 years for the spelling of machine to change to masheen.
Because that’s exactly how it’s spelled in the movie Idiocracy. (Spoiler alert for a movie that came out over 15 years ago.) The plot takes place in the year 2505. At the end of the movie, the protagonist is taken to a theme park ride called the “Time Masheen”:
I’m sure the director Mike Judge was having fun here – or maybe he’s a lexicography buff and he was tipping his hat to ol’ Noah. I know that this spelling of masheen is supposed to show how stupid people have become in the future, but spelling reform is actually a good idea. Some argue that spelling reform will have to happen sooner or later in English, especially as we get further away from the current spelling of words due to sound shifts, so why not now? And there’s the fact that our antiquated spelling system makes learning unnecessarily difficult. But there are other problems associated with spelling reform, such as choosing which variety of English to base the spelling on when there are so many different varieties. Food for thought.
Check out some more of Webster’s suggestions in an article by Arika Okrent for The Week. Merriam-Webster has a post about other spelling reforms that never caught on (including masheen). And the podcast Word Matters, which is hosted by editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, has an episode where they discuss the history of Noah Webster’s monumental work on his dictionary. In that episode they talk about exactly why masheen never caught on – hint: Noah was bamboozled by his editors!