Putting the ‘fun’ in ‘phonetics’

By Curtis Honeycutt | Apr 16, 2021

I took my son Miles to get his hair cut this past weekend. Miles’ barber has recently moved into a new salon down the road. The new spot is inside a larger salon called Phenix Salon Suites, a national chain of salons. Although California-based Phenix Salon Suites has a growing nationwide presence, I can’t help but cringe at the business’ spelling: Phenix. It should be “Phoenix,” shouldn’t it?

Even though the “o” in the properly-spelled “Phoenix” is silent, it’s still a wonky word to spell. Perhaps the owner of the salon chain attempted to spell “Phoenix” phonetically? If so, it should be “Feniks.”

When someone spells a word phonetically, they spell the word exactly as it sounds. If we’re spelling things phonetically, we should spell the word “phonetic” like this: “fuhnetik.” I’ll admit, that spelling looks downright funky.

Of course, this led me to do a deep dive on phonetic spelling. Let me just tell you: I wasn’t disappointed. A who’s who of American history has petitioned for phonetic spelling, including the father of the modern dictionary, Mr. Noah Webster. While Webster deserves credit for busting Americans out of many British word spellings (e.g., “mould” became “mold”), several of his spelling changes didn’t catch on.

For instance, Webster changed the spelling of “soup” to “soop,” “tongue” to “tung,” and “is” to “iz.”

Word wiz Webster wasn’t the only proponent of phonetic spelling. In 1768, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote a book called “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling.”

In the book, Franklin not only argued for phonetic spellings of words, but he also unveiled a phonetic alphabet in which he axed the letters “j,” “q,” “w,” “x” and “y” while adding six new letters. Not surprisingly, instead of writing “alphabet,” Franklin wrote “alfabet.” It didn’t catch on.

In the early 1900s, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie funded a group called the Simplified Spelling Board. Among its members were Mark Twain, Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System), publisher Henry Holt and several prominent leaders. This group, which called for a radical simplification of spelling, caught the ear of president Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy became a fan of the plan.

The Simplified Spelling Board suggested a list of 300 words whose spellings could be streamlined in order for English to catch on as the world’s dominant language. While many of the simplified words had already been adopted as orthodox spelling, Roosevelt pushed for the official changing of all 300 words. Not only did Congress find this a ridiculous overreach of power, but all of England had a good collective laugh over Teddy’s strong suggestion.

Shortly after, Roosevelt waved the white flag on his attempt at spelling reform. Yet, from the ashes of Teddy’s phonetic spelling debacle, a Phenix of cosmetology rose triumphantly.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist and treasurer of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.

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