Foreign Service Friday: Despatch vs. Dispatch

Today’s post is written by archivist David Langbart who works primarily with diplomatic records.

In my earlier post about Despatches, I noted that the correct spelling in Department of State usage is dEspatch and not dIspatch.  After writing that post, purely by serendipity, I located a document that shows just how seriously the Department of State took the spelling of that term.

In 1927, the Department and the Government Printing Office, which did all the printing for government agencies, had a disagreement about the spelling of despatch/dispatch on some forms.  When the GPO informed the Department that it was going to correct the spelling on the form to what it saw as the correct “dispatch,” Tyler Dennett of the Department’s Division of Publications sent the following letter to George H. Carter, head of the GPO:

   January 19, 1927

My. Dear Mr. Carter:

     My attention has been called to the fact that the Government Printing Office is disposed to question the Department’s spelling of “despatch”.  On Department requisition No. 518, Jacket 26756, the proof for Form 264 Foreign Service, “Estimate for contingent expenses, clerk hire and other expenses”, contains on our corrected proof in a foot note the word “despatch”.  I am informed that Mr. Weber is disposed to change the “e” to and “i”.  The courtesy of informing me that such action is contemplated is much appreciated.

     The noun “dispatch” is unknown in the correspondence of the Department of State.  The word is “despatch”, and has come to be a technical term meaning diplomatic correspondence which enters a foreign office as distinguished from the outgoing instruction.  The peculiar meaning of the word serves to separate it from the very much broader dictionary meaning of the word “dispatch”.

     It is difficult to see in what respect a change of spelling by the Government Printing Office of a term which has stood for nearly a century and a half in the United States and is current in English diplomatic correspondence throughout the world would serve a useful purpose in any way adequate to offset the confusion which would accompany the change.

     It seems to the Department that the spelling of this word may very properly be in the nature of one of the relatively few exceptions to the spelling in the Government Printing Office Style Manual which are of real importance to the Department and which can make very little difference in the Government Printing Office.  The spelling “despatch” has been so generally accepted in this country, as well as abroad, because of its relation to diplomatic practice, that the other spelling may fairly be classed as vulgar.


                             /s/ Tyler Dennett

                             Chief, Division of Publications

This letter did not end the immediate contretemps, but ultimately the Department continued using its preferred spelling into the 1960s, when use of the despatch ended.

Source:  Tyler Dennett to George H. Carter, January 19, 1927, File 119.4/203A, 1930-39 Central Decimal File, (NAID 302021), Record Group 59, National Archives.  Due to a peculiarity in Department of State filing, this 1927 document is part of the 1930-39 segment of the central file.