Posted by: Rob Viens | September 21, 2012

Bored on Board

September 20th and 21st were a quiet couple of days for Darwin, and included very brief, to-the-point diary entries:

“Staid on board” (Sept 20) and,

“In the morning there was a good deal of wind; so that I did not leave the ship.” (Sept 21)

For a long time I have been thinking about Darwin’s spelling – or more accurately, his spelling mistakes.  Now I am not knocking him – I’d have made as many or more mistakes myself (and I have a spell checker). He was traveling he word and introduced to a lot of new terms, and had limited resources at his disposal (and to be fair, some spelling have changed through time). And probably most importantly, this was his diary.  He did expect to share it with his family, but it was a private document, so he probably didn’t really care much if it contained spelling mistakes.

Charles Darwin

But , of course, Darwin did become famous – really famous.  So scholars gathered up and published every bit of his writing they could find – including diaries, letters, to-do lists, etc. – little insights into the mind of the great man.  And not wanting to alter anything that might misrepresent him and his thoughts, these scholars decided to not change a word – so all of Darwin’s spelling mistakes were transcribed and published and passed on through history. (Not to mention love letters and other personal communications he would probably be appalled to know are now in public consumption.)

So from time to time I find myself pondering, what would Darwin think about all this? Would he have taken more care to edit his diary if he knew it would still be around for public consumption 200 years later (and probably many centuries to come)? Or would he have just carried on – content that he was getting the ideas down? It would be interesting to see is reaction if we could travel back to this day in history and tell Darwin about his fame and that all over the internet are recreations of his misspellings for the world to see.

He’d probably just think we were crazy and go on doing the same thing.  (RJV)


  1. Two things, one, living aboard a ship for 9 to 10 months on two occasions, I too remember many a day that was boring. Even daily work and activities such as exercise did not waken the excitement of wonder in life. I am sure Darwin experienced many days that were boring. It is a fact of life aboard a ship. Second, spelling. Over the years I have read several autobiographies such as US Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Lewis and Clark. Reading each of their stories in their own language (spelling) was an adventure. Lewis misspelled many words and in several cases misspelled a single word up to 7 different ways. It is my understanding that standardization of spelling was not universality accepted until around the end of the 19th century. But reading the works of people of this time period is fun and informational.

    • Good point about spelling – I had forgotten about the standardization of spelling. Work on the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t even start until the late 1850’s, so maybe I was a little hard on Darwin 🙂 Thanks for the reminder Al!

      I’ve also read some of the writings of Lewis and Clark, but I think Lewis can’t really use the standardization argument. He seemed to have a deeper issue with spelling!

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