Should I fix the spelling in the United States Constitution?


Commenter Dave jokingly remarked, "I've grown used to handling characters with ASCII. (If it was good enough to represent every character in the US Constitution, it's good enough for me.)"

But there's a double-joke in there. You see, not every character in the United States Constitution can be represented in ASCII!

If you take a close look, you'll see that some words appear to be "misspelled": At the end of the second line, it says "Bleſsings of Liberty", and Article 1 Section 1 declares that "All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congreſs of the United States."

That f-like character is actually a long S, a character which has fallen into disuse in modern English. It also doesn't exist in ASCII.

My friend The Knitty Professor told me a story of a class she taught many years ago. A student emailed a question:

When I want to quote an excerpt from Locke in my paper, should I fix the spelling? Some words use f instead of s, and others are incorrectly capitalized.

Today is Constitution Day, a United States holiday celebrating the United States Constitution. Since 2005, all educational institutions which receive federal funds must teach about the United States Constitution on this day, even hairdresser schools.

Comments (23)
  1. Jack Mathews says:

    Is this your shrewd attempt to get federal funds? :-)

  2. keith says:

    If we can "chuse" our president, we can certainly chuse our character set.

  3. mikeb says:

    Another of Raymond’s small contributions to ensure that No Developer is Left Behind.

  4. ſomeone elſe says:

    ASCII is ſo 1980. Everyone who ſtill doeſn’t ſupport Unicode ſhould be forced to uſe Windows (without NT). Or DOS. On a dual core, just to rub it in their face.

  5. Tom says:

    Damn you, Raymond!  I have recently become interested in typography, typesetting and fonts.  By giving me these links you’ve got me reading blogs instead of working.  I hope I don’t get fired…

  6. David Walker says:

    Bah to you, Raymond, for including those interesting links, which eventually led me to The Printers’ Grammar from MDCCLXXXVII, which I downloaded as a PDF, and I’ll probably read a lot of it.  Thereby wasting time that could be spent in other ways….

  7. Anonymous says:

    ſomeone elſe,

    I belive the ſ was used primarily in words which contain consecutive eſses, similar to ß in German.  (Note that ß looks a lot like ſs.)  In a word with a single S it looks kind of out of place.

    As for the general question of whether or not to update spelling…  Sure, why not?  We update the spelling of Shakespeare to modern usage, and that’s a lot more nontrivial than "s/ſ/s/g" (but also happens to include that transformation).

  8. Neil (SM) says:

    Anonymous:

    Did you miss Raymond’s link to the "Rules for Long S"? I think you may have missed the mark about that.

  9. Sy says:

    Open EDIT (or Notepad with Terminal font) and type Alt+244.

  10. Joel says:

    "I belive the ſ was used primarily in words which contain consecutive eſses, similar to ß in German.  (Note that ß looks a lot like ſs.)  In a word with a single S it looks kind of out of place."

    That’s because ß is actually a combination of ſ and z (which is still clear in Fraktur print).  This character goes back to the Middle High German combination "zz", which was later often spelled "sz" and represented a sort of lispy "s" sound that merged in the 1300s with regular "s".

  11. Maurits says:

    Whether ß is a combination of ſ and z or a combination of ſ and s is a point hotly debated.  The controversy is one of the main points in favor of creating a "capital ß", because then it becomes possible to capitalize ß without committing to either SS or SZ.

  12. Michael Stum says:

    Well, if George Washington was really Adam Weishaupt and a member of the illuminates, it would make sense to smuggle in a german ß :-)

  13. Miral says:

    How do you require that people teach something on a holiday?  Isn’t the point of a holiday that there will be nobody there to teach?

  14. ſomeone elſe says:

    No, the point of a holiday is to celebrate or commemorate some important event in the past. Having a free day is a nice bonus, but not a requirement.

  15. Cheong says:

    @David Walker: Good. And now I’ve been trapped to read The_printers_grammar.pdf because of your commant.

  16. Ari says:

    And another letter which you see appropriated is "y" as in "ye olde shoppe"

    That "y" is a part of an older (from Old Norse) letter which is now only used in Icelandic, as far as I know. The letter is named thorn and looks like this Þ.

    It corresponds to the hard "th" sound in "thing"

    You can find letter like this in older texts from before the standardization of English spelling.

  17. esses says:

    Didn’t the old Fraktur print in Germany use a long s (f-looking) within words? And certainly the Greek small sigma has two shapes, one for within words and one at the end.

  18. sakasune says:

    So I did a Google search for ſ and it returned a Wikipedia article on the letter S (another result on Sulfur, the periodic element S), and finance related articles for Sprint (NYSE ticker symbol S). Also all of Google’s suggestions start with S. Bing returned pages that actually have that symbol on the page I think.

    …I need to get back to work

  19. Whatever says:

    I’d be more concerned about "tranquility" and "defence".  ;-)

  20. Neil (SM) says:

    @Miral: It’s not that kind of holiday. Nobody gets the day off for Constitution Day.

  21. Mark Sowul says:

    "ASCII is ſo 1980. Everyone who ſtill doeſn’t ſupport Unicode ſhould be forced to uſe Windows (without NT). Or DOS. On a dual core, just to rub it in their face."

    Or they should have to read Slaſhdot.

  22. Raoul says:

    Just use the ß instead and lop off the extra s :)

  23. someone else says:

    Slashdot is for people who are in deep denial about every OS which (at least internally) identifies as “Windows NT” while using an OS that isn’t nearly as convenient as NT 3.1.

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