I don’t often disagree with John Wells, but I have to make an exception in the case of his blog entry for yesterday (St George’s Day 2008 – 23 April). He says:
“In the respelling systems I designed first for the Reader’s Digest Great Illustrated Dictionary (1984) and then later for the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999), with their spin-offs (pictured), I introduced the idea of making use of doubled consonant letters.”
No, he didn’t introduce this idea – the BBC has been using double consonant letters in its respelling system since the first edition of Broadcast English I: Recommendations to Announcers Regarding Certain Words of Doubtful Pronunciation (1928). The system in use by the BBC now is rather more sophisticated than that, which was devised by Arthur Lloyd James, but the principle remains the same. Here are a few examples from that first publication, with the traditional orthography in brackets:
áddults (adults), bárraazh (barrage), bássolt (basalt), bíttewmen (bitumen), éppilogg (epilogue), répplikka (replica), wésslĭan (wesleyan).
John must have been at least subconsciously aware of the BBC system – which he was presumably already familiar with from the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, which uses what the BBC calls its Modified Spelling alongside an IPA transcription – when he started work for the Reader’s Digest.
Where I do agree with John is his initial statement that most users of dictionaries fail to read the introductory material, material that is just as important as the alphabetical entries when it comes to interpreting the editors’ intentions.