Mr. Dewey, Spelling Reform, Canadian Tractors and Some Serious Nerddom

Yesterday, I reorganised my books according to the Dewey Decimal Classification.

It was sheer bliss. (Yes, I am that nerdy.)

I adore the Dewey system. It’s the one I learnt in primary school (when I was, of course, a badged Library Monitor) and it’s the one that means I can walk into any library and head for the 230s, 390s, 929s and 940s, confident that I will find everything I worth reading about, namely Christian Theology, Customs and Folklore, Heraldry, and European History. (Isn’t that all anyone reads about, anyway?)


Melvil Dewey

The Dewey Decimal Classification was created by Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) in 1876. He is the archetypal Victorian genius, full-bearded and full of zany ideas for improving the world.

His rather unusual first name was originally ‘Melville’ but Melvil(le), as well as being the greatest Librarian ever, was also an advocate of spelling reform and he decided to lop off the ‘le’ of his name to make it more “rational.”

Actually, there is a connection between Melvil’s passion for cataloguing books and his passion for reforming English. Besides both being about words and books etc, both are attempts to simplify, rationalise and categorise the world.

Spelling Reformists wanted to tame the English language by outlawing its unpredictable, quirky and downright misleading spellings. They wanted English to be logical, systematic and above all, phonetic (or rather, fonetic.) The success of spelling reform in the 19th Century is why Americans dropped the u’s in words like colour, changed the s’s to z’s and why I have red wobbly lines scattered through any word document trying to tell me it’s center, not centre and tidbit, not titbit.

But for all its “rationality”, I hate the idea of spelling reform. One of the glories of the English language is that it’s so strange, and it’s so strange because it’s alive! English is always sucking up other languages and spitting out new words. And why would you want to tame the beast that nurtured Shakespeare, Dickens and Dr. Seuss?

Besides, it means that I can feel better about myself because I know my theirs from my they’res and theres. Oh, and did you know that there are at least nine different ways to pronounce ‘ough’? (though, through, thought, rough, cough, hiccough, plough, drought, borough, and lough). The sheer absurdity of that is reason enough (or enuf) to keep it!

So much for spelling reform.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, A Young Girl Reading, 1776 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, A Young Girl Reading, 1776 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

But Dewey’s other passion, the orderly organisation of books, I am much more sympathetic to.

As far as I’m concerned, the Dewey Decimal Classification represents the height of Victorian self-confidence, and thus of Modernity, the Western world and indeed of all Capital-C Civilisation. Quite seriously. In this one system to catalogue books, you will find all the drive and vision that made us what we are today.

There are ten categories in the Dewey System. We begin with man and his relation to himself, namely his questions about himself and the world (100 Philosophy & Psychology). Then we examine the man in relation to the transcendent (200 Religion). From there, we move to the man in relation to others (300 Social Science) and how this relation is achieved (400 Language); and then to his relation to the world, both how he can understand it (500 Science) and then apply that understanding to shape his world (600 Technology). We then examine how he can use the world, not only for useful things, but for good and beautiful things, both in material form (700 Arts) and abstractly through language (800 Literature). Finally, we survey just how our man has done that through the course of time (900 History & Geography).

It’s an orderly progression that pictures man as a master of all he surveys: exploring, discovering, labeling  harnessing, moulding and above all, cataloguing his world. This is the scientific mind at work and it was the scientific mind that made Modernity.

Some people think the Dewey Decimal Classification is obsolete in the modern world. Admittedly, it isn’t terribly politically correct. For instance, the 200s for religion is divided into ten categories, eight of which are on Christianity, one on the philosophy of religion and the last, the 290s, on “Other Religions”. That right, Christianity essentially takes up 9/10ths of ‘Religion’ and all the other religions get lumped into one measly category. Now that’s fine if you’re a Dead Bearded White Guy (or a slightly crazy Catholic girl, a la me) but not so good if you’re anyone else. Poor things.


Some categories have lots of subcategories and subsubsubsubcategories as those fields have grown substantially since the 19th Century. Others, like computer science, have had to be shoved into the noughties (000) which was originally for miscellaneous stuff.

And some categories are no longer used at all. They include Essays (104) and Infinity (125) from Philosophy, Polygraphy (308) the Education of Women (376) and Outcast Studies (397) from Social Sciences, Mormonism (298) from ‘Other Religions’ (i.e. not Christianity) and the very sweet Prosody (416) from Linguistics.

The most mutilated category, however, is 130: Paraphsychology and Occultism. It still includes methods (131), specific topics (133), Dreams (135), Divination (137), Physiognomy (138) and Phrenology (139) but lost Mental Derangements (132) and Mesmerism and Clairvoyance (134). I can’t say I’m too devastated by that…

But the brilliance of the Dewey system is that while it can insensitive, undemocratic and even unwieldy, it can keep being used because you can just keep subdividing categories by adding more decimal points. Dewey tapped into the power of the infinite. (For the philosophical concept of Infinity, see the 125s… oh wait, that’s right, you can’t anymore.) And now proud 21st Century Canadian tractor enthusiasts from Winnipeg between can boast the longest Dewey number in the world.


The Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin

The Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin

In all this, it’s hard to miss how much society has changed since Melvil’s times. Back then, spelling you’re ur, daughter dorter and business bizness was a sign of enlightement rationalisation; now it’s a sign of crash stupidity. And back then, it was perfectly acceptable to label some people outcasts, take Phrenology seriously, and think Christianity was the be all and end all of Religion.

But back then, there was also this drive to understand and comprehend the world. There was the belief that the world was eminently comprehensible, that it had been created for Man and for Man to discover and rule it.

And there was the belief that this pursuit of knowledge was a worthy endeavour but also an endeavour that belonged to all people; all people needed and deserved to understand their world. That’s why the 19th Century saw the creation, on a large scale, of the first Public Libraries, repositories of knowledge that was freely available to all. But for a Public Library to be truly accessible, it needed a simple access system.

Enter Melvil(le) and his rational Dewey Classification System.

Thank you Mr. Dewey.


17 responses to “Mr. Dewey, Spelling Reform, Canadian Tractors and Some Serious Nerddom

  1. Familiar with the system (although nowhere near your level) and spelling reform, from Theodore Roosevelt (how come he never fixed his name, anyway) but I really like where you went with this, especially since after reflection, I completely agree.

    • Thank you! Yes, I’ve read that Roosevelt was a fan of spelling reform. It seems like many intelligent, “public-spirited” people were at the time. Though if he was to change his name, what would it be? Theodor Ruesefelt? (I’m not even sure how you pronounce Roosevelt properly!)

      • Yep, he was the one who pushed it through in this country, why I don’t know, I like the u’s and such.

        One for your collection: Civil War soldiers were wounded as in sounded rather than the way we say it.

  2. So very few people understand the the beauty of a well-organized book shelf *sigh*… fellow-nerd high five being sent your way

  3. The language may be glorious, as u claim, because its “strange” and “alive”, but its spelling code is anything but. Spelling codes U mistake the spelling code as being the language. The language is words, their sounds, etymology, meanings, how they may be used, and, yes, their spellings.

    The language can stay “alive” whatever its spelling code is, be it lettered riting, semafor, morse code, naval flags, shorthand, telegrafese, or SMS.

    The function of our spelling code is to allow everyone to become literat. The present English code doesnt do this. Because of its irrationality it hinders approximatly one in five learners – worldwide – and allows the other four to “feel better”, as u do so unchristianly.

  4. Indeed! Spelling is merely a tool of the language. As such, and like other tools, it should be upgraded, honed, and made as easy to use as possible, so that all who want to become literat (sic) can do so.

  5. Like so many opponents of spelling reform, u are unable to distinguish between the English language, which is extremely simple and versatile, and which no spelling reformer has ever wanted to change, and its chaotic orthography which I have detailed on my EnglishSpellingProblems website and several blogs. Spelling reformers advocate improvements to English spelling because they would like more people to be able to learn to use the language well.

    U are probably also not aware that in Shakespeare’s lifetime there was yet no correct, standard spelling for English. People spelt as they pleased. Our ‘there/their’, for example, had those spellings but also ‘thair, thare, ther’, and all of them used for either meaning.

    What u probably understand least of all is that the inconsistencies of English spelling incur heavy costs. They ensure that learning to read and write takes much longer in English than in languages with more consistent writing systems. They cause higher rates of functional illiteracy which incur numerous personal and fiscal costs. They create pressure to start schooling at a very young, greater need for parents to help with learning to read and write, more spelling errors and more marking for teachers.
    Masha Bell

    • Thank you for commenting Masha Bell. 🙂 I think you make some good points! My only respone would be that language is an organic thing and if English is going to become far easier to spell (which would probably be a good thing!), then I think that change will happen organically – as it always has. Thanks again and hope you will stick around! 🙂

  6. Good to know that u think easier spelling wouid “probably be a good thing”. But it wont happen unless we, the users, do something about it. Thats why i’v (sic) been dropping “uselss e” in words such as hav (cf, save, grave) and literat.

  7. I liked this post and simultaneously ( have I spelled that correctly Lyn?) wanted to tear my hair out at the same time.because I ” Dewey – decimal systemed” daily in my 7 year “itch” ( do you know how many mites library books can carry…no don’t go there…) that should read “stint” employed in the Library service. I love the peculiarities of the English language – specially loved the nine ways to say “Oug!”

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