No Respect for a Man Who Can Spell a Word Only One Way

Mark Twain? Nyrum Reynolds? Hiram Runnels? Andrew Jackson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I sometimes have difficulty spelling words correctly. But I take comfort in the magnificent saying of Mark Twain:

I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.

Actually, I used to take comfort in those words, but recently I have found several other versions of the joke:

Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.

I have no respect for a man who can spell a word only one way.

Never trust anyone who can’t spell a word more than one way.

All of these quotations are credited to Twain. But now I have become suspicious. Did Twain say any of these sentences? Could you investigate this puzzle?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI sympathizes with your spelling difficulties and is also interested in this quote. Ace researcher Victor Steinbok located a version of the joke attributed to Twain in 1875 [MTIS]:

Mark Twain says that he must have little genius who can’t spell a word in more than one way.

Since Twain lived to the age of 74 in 1910, the joke was credited to him for a few decades while he was alive. The TwainQuotes website of Barbara Schmidt includes an excellent webpage on the theme of spelling. None of the quotes featured match the joke precisely, but the attitudes expressed help to explain why contemporaries were willing to attribute the joke to Twain. Here is an example from Twain’s autobiography [TQSP] [MTA]:

I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.

Yet, the earliest known versions of this joke were not attributed to Mark Twain. Instead, two individuals with curiously similar names were each separately credited: Nyrum Reynolds and Hiram Runnels. The first version that QI has located is an anecdote about Nyrum Reynolds dated 1855 August 31. (The spelling in this excerpt is preserved from the original text) [NRJ]:

Several years ago, “when the country was new,” Hon. Nyrum Reynolds, of Wyoming Co., enjoyed quite a reputation as a successful pettifogger. He wasn’t very well posted up either in “book larnin’” or the learning of the law; but relied principally upon his own native tact and shrewdness–his stock of which has not failed him to this day. His great success created quite an active demand for his services.

On one occasion he was pitted against a “smart appearing” well-dressed limb of the law from a neighboring village, who made considerable sport of a paper which Reynolds had submitted to the Court, remarking among other things, that “all the law papers were required to be written in the English language, and that the one under consideration, from its bad spelling and penmanship, ought in fairness therefore to be excluded.”

“Gen’l’men of the Jury,” said Reynolds, when he “summed up”—and every word weighed a pound—”the learned counsel on the other side finds fault with my ritin’ and spellin’ as though the merits of this case depended upon sich matters! I’m again lugging in any sich outside affairs, but I will say, that a man must be a d—d fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.” The Jury sympathized with Judge R. and rendered a decision in favor of his client.—[Olean Journal.

Special thanks to the top-notch researchers Joel Berson and Stephen Goranson who also located early instances of this anecdote.

In November of the same year, 1855, the anecdote is retold but the main character has been changed to the Hon. Hiram Runnels from the Hon. Nyrum Reynolds. The location is still referred to as Wyoming, but Hiram Runnels resides in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Nyrum Reynolds was probably located in Wyoming County, New York. Here is an abbreviated excerpt of the story as published in Harper's Magazine [HRHM]:

Some years ago the Hon. Hiram Runnels, of Wyoming, Pennsylvania, had quite a reputation as a pettifogger. His knowledge of books was very small, and his main reliance was upon his own tact and shrewdness, which rarely failed him, and lasts to this day. … . “I’m agin luggin’ in any sich forin’ affairs, but I will say that a man must be a great fool who can’t spell a word more than one way.”

Another popular choice for attribution is Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and famed General. Here is an instance in 1882 [AJH]:

The variety of ways in which Groton Town-Clerks contrived to spell the same office is marvellous to behold. Evidently, like General Jackson, they despised a man who could spell a word in only one way.

Ralph Keyes writing in the Quote Verifier says [QVAJ]:

Jackson was widely lampooned for his intellectual limitations, with lots of inane remarks getting put in his mouth (e.g., “Elevate them guns a little lower.”). He was particularly ridiculed for being a poor speller.

Jackson died in 1845 and the citations QI has found that contain the spelling quip appear after his death. Several other individuals have been credited with the joke but QI will end the post here. Thanks for your question, and remember spell-checkers do help somewhat.

[MTIS] 1875 November, The Illinois Schoolmaster, Spelling, Page 380, Volume VIII, Number 90, Normal, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link

[TQSP] TwainQuotes website editor Barbara Schmidt, Spelling webpage, Accessed 2010 June 25. link

[MTA] 1925, The Writings of Mark Twain: Mark Twain’s Autobiography by Mark Twain, Page 68, Gabriel Wells. (Google Books snippet view only) link

[NRJ] 1855 August 31, Jamestown Journal, Spelling Words More Than One Way, Page 3, Column 2, Jamestown, New York. (GenealogyBank)

[HRHM] 1855 November, Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 66, Editor’s Drawer, Page 860, Harper’s Magazine Company. (Google Books full view) link

[AJH] 1882 July, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Addendum: Hog Reeves or Hog Constables, Page 273, Published Quarterly by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston. link

[QVAJ] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 206-207, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

5 thoughts on “No Respect for a Man Who Can Spell a Word Only One Way

  1. The stories themselves are not jokes – but rather the prevailing joke was inspired by those stories.

    In other words – at some point – someone made a remark regarding the ability to spell a word in more than one way as a positive thing – and may even have used it to dispel a derogatory comment direct at them – that anecdotal version of events has since been subjected to a period in history where literacy and a published dictionary have become common place – and so has become a joke of sorts to point out someone who does not conform to the commonly accepted idea that there is only one correct way to spell a given word in a given context.

  2. I agree with the premise of the joke.
    I think people who worry about spelling,( and typos) just don’t understand the substance of the issue at hand, so they comment on trivial matters. I think they must of had a very strict up bringing. They use their ability to spot spelling error as some proof of their perceived superior intelligence. When in truth, it’s noting but a compulsive disorder and they should be seeking treatment. Standardize spelling did not come to American English until the late 18th century. If you’ve travel around this country you will find, most people do not speak it. English is a fluent language


  3. This article is great! I just learned some information about Andrew Jackson in my history class. His wife Rachel was still married to her previous husband, and she had to divorce so her and the president could get married right the second time around. Andrew Jackson was also known for his strict Indian policy, in which he favored Indians living in the plains away from the white man. How interesting it is to learn something none judgemental about him…like he could not spell. Anyone can get away with not knowing how to spell. I know a lot of college students who do.

  4. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

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