I've enjoyed books like Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and The BFG by Roald Dahl, where bad spelling and grammar (the BFG's extensive writing on the dream jars) are an integral part of the joke, and it establishes the narrator as wise if not book-smart.

But these are before the Internet age, which featured an explosion of leetspeak, etc., and it's quickly lost its novelty value. But I am wondering what the earliest book is in English that uses bad spelling for humor value. I don't mean spelling that was right then but looks odd now, or spelling that was wrong then but is acceptable now.

I don't know if I'd need a separate question to for earliest American effort as opposed to the earliest English effort, but I'd be interested in either. I hope that doesn't make the question too wide in scope.

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    Hi aschultz, welcome to Literature SE! Could you please have a look at What topics can I ask about here? and What types of questions should I avoid asking?? What you are asking appears to be a list of examples or possibly recommendations, and that type of question is generally frowned upon on Stack Exchange sites. I recommend that you try our chat room instead (though it's sometimes quiet).
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 18, 2019 at 9:35
  • @ChristopheStrobbe thanks, I didn't look rigorously enough to see what I should ask. Let me know if I should delete this question.
    – aschultz
    Jun 18, 2019 at 9:47
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    You can turn this into an acceptable question by asking for the earliest example in English. That will obviously lead to difference results than the current wording.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 18, 2019 at 12:11
  • I should also add that there is a difference between incorrect grammar and spelling on the one hand and dialect (cf. the first answer) on the other. "Dialect" is not incorrect language; it's simply a unofficial language variant that deviates from the standard language. If/when you update your question, it would be a good idea to clarify what you mean.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 18, 2019 at 17:27
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    As an answer to the pre-edited question: Aristophanes uses Persian and Doric for humor in Acharnians
    – b a
    Jun 20, 2019 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


James Whitcomb Riley was perhaps the most well-known American humorist who wrote primarily in dialect. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is probably the best-known American book written in dialect, but it's only semi-humorous. Zora Neale Hurston's transcendent Their Eyes Were Watching God has all the dialog in dialect, but it's neither for humor nor for cruelty. Finnegans Wake is written all in an idiolect, and is arguably intended to be humorous, but it's such a difficult work that it's hard to say anything definitive about it. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is in an invented composite dialect, but again, not primarily for humor. Trainspotting is arguably bleakly humorous, and some of the humor comes from the language. Terry Pratchett often uses humorous idiolects in his books, and outlandish alien slang is a reoccuring joke in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker series. Bruno's babyish language is milked shamelessly for (putative) humor in Lewis Carroll's Sylvie & Bruno.

  • Thanks for this! I had to rephrase the question to keep it in line with site guidelines, but I think your answer provides answers to my original one. I'd upvote it if my question had been solid enough in the first place.
    – aschultz
    Jun 19, 2019 at 0:40

But I am wondering what the earliest book is in English that uses bad spelling for humor value.

I realise I'm somewhat stretching the scope of your question, but if you include plays as "books", and in the context of spoken dialogue you interpret "bad spelling" to include the author putting the wrong word in a character's mouth for the audience's amusement, then malapropisms offer some early options.

The term "malapropism" itself is derived from the surname of Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy of manners The Rivals, which was first performed in 1775. Mrs Malaprop is a moralistic widow, and guardian of the main character Lydia; as the primary comic figure in the play, she frequently chooses a word that sounds like the one she means, but is completely (indeed, ludicrously) wrong in the context. It might therefore be thought of as a verbal spelling error.

Examples of her misspoken words:

"Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" [Likely substitutions: "reprehend" for apprehend; "oracular" for vernacular; "derangement" for arrangement; "epitaphs" for epithets]

"illiterate him quite from your memory" ["illiterate" for obliterate]

"she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" ["allegory" for alligator]

While Sheridan's play gave the modern name to this technique, its use for comic effect goes back much earlier. In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, first published in 1623, the attempts of his comic character Constable Dogberry – an officious, incompetent, amateur police chief – to appear sophisticated result in tortured descriptions and ridiculous malapropisms.

Perhaps Constable Dogberry's best-known line is when he reports the arrest of two villains:

"Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons." ["comprehended" for apprehended and "auspicious" for suspicious].

Interestingly, as a result of this popular play such vocabulary errors became known as dogberryisms, a term that endured until the arrival of Mrs Malaprop.

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    Interesting. I never knew there was a word "dogberryism" predating "malapropism".
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 5, 2019 at 8:05
  • @Rand LOL - on first glance I interpreted “predating” as the thing predators do. The bumbling amateur cop as predator of the over-protective widow! :-) Sep 4, 2019 at 7:40
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    @ChappoHasn'tForgottenMonica Deleted. I still think that this answer stretches the question too far beyond what was asked, and would be better as a comment. However, since others have upvoted it, I guess I'm in the minority.
    – verbose
    Apr 11, 2021 at 2:03

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