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 statement attributed to 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 this quip:
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: The statement has never been found in the writings or speeches of Mark Twain. Yet, Twain has been connected to the remark for more than one hundred and thirty years. The earliest linkage known to QI consisted of an unsupported attribution published in 1875: 1
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 remark 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. However, none of the quotes featured match the joke precisely. The attitudes expressed do help to explain why contemporaries were willing to attribute the joke to Twain. Here is an example from Twain’s autobiography: 2 3
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.
Interestingly, the earliest known versions of the comical remark 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 was an anecdote about Nyrum Reynolds dated August 31, 1855. The spelling in the following excerpt was present in the original text. Boldface has been added: 4
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.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1855 the anecdote was retold, but the main character was changed to the Hon. Hiram Runnels from the Hon. Nyrum Reynolds. The location was still referred to as Wyoming, but Hiram Runnels resided 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: 5
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 has been Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and famed General. Here is an instance in 1882: 6
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: 7
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 appeared after his death.
In conclusion, QI conjectures that this remark was created as the punch line of a fictional anecdote about spelling. It is not clear whether the Nyrum Reynolds or the Hiram Runnels tale was constructed first. Twenty years later the remark was reassigned to Mark Twain. Later still the expression was attributed to Andrew Jackson and other famous individuals. However, the supporting evidence for an ascription to Twain or Jackson is very weak.
Image Notes: Mark Twain photo portrait in 1871; Andrew Jackson daguerrotype in 1845; both via Wikimedia Commons. Letter tiles from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Theric Jepson who asked about this topic. Special thanks to Joel Berson, and Stephen Goranson who located some early citations for the anecdote. Many thanks to Victor Steinbok who located the valuable 1875 citation.)
Update History: Parts of the article were rewritten on June 22, 2014. The footnotes were switched to numeric form.
- 1875 November, The Illinois Schoolmaster, Spelling, Page 380, Volume VIII, Number 90, Normal, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- TwainQuotes website editor Barbara Schmidt, Spelling webpage, Accessed 2010 June 25. link ↩
- 1925, The Writings of Mark Twain: Mark Twain’s Autobiography by Mark Twain, Page 68, Gabriel Wells. (Google Books snippet view only) link ↩
- 1855 August 31, Jamestown Journal, Spelling Words More Than One Way, Page 3, Column 2, Jamestown, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1855 November, Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 66, Editor’s Drawer, Page 860, Harper’s Magazine Company. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 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 ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 206-207, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩