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:
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:
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:
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.
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