We all know about “the three R’s”: readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. I always assumed it was an old wheeze making fun of people who couldn’t spell, but it seems it was started by an English politician who actually couldn’t spell, or at least wasn’t thinking about spelling when he said it; in this thread about the expression, Dr. Techie quoted the OED as saying “The phrase is said to have originated in a toast proposed c1807 by the English banker and politician Sir William Curtis (1752-1829)” and gave this citation as evidence:

1825 Mirror of Lit. 29 Jan. 75/1 It has been very much the fashion amongst a class of persons to attribute to Sir W. C. certain bulls… He is charged with having given, at public dinners, the following toasts:—‘The British tars of Old England’. ‘A speedy peace, and soon.’.. ‘The three R’s—Reading, Writing, and Rithmetic’.

As I said in response:

Interesting: if that’s true, it didn’t originate as a conscious joke but as a “bull” (i.e., “an expression containing a manifest contradiction in terms or involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker”). Just as Sir William didn’t notice that “soon” didn’t add anything to “speedy,” he didn’t notice that two of the three “Rs” didn’t actually start with the letter r.


  1. Of course, it’s possible that he actually did notice but had a sense of humor. Similarly, George Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron, was a U. S. Senator from California and apparently a terrible speller, if not semi-illiterate. He is said to have asked, in defending his orthography: “If B-U-R-D doesn’t spell ‘bird,’ what in the hell does it spell?”

  2. Quoth the OED, s.v. burd:
    Obs. (exc. in ballad poetry).
    [A word of obscure origin, found in the earliest ME. in form burde, frequent in Layamon, but afterwards chiefly in northern, or north midl. writers, and in alliterative verse.
    Burd has been variously identified with BIRD n., and with BRIDE. Although its later spelling is identical with the mod.Sc. form of bird, and it has been sometimes treated as merely a fig. use of this word, the earlier forms of both show them to be quite distinct. The identification with bride has somewhat more plausibility; but even if we take as the basis the Da. brud instead of the OE. brýd, the phonetic difficulties are many and serious. The various ME. spellings seem to indicate that the vowel was ü = OE. y; some of them also favour a dissyllabic form. The OE. adj. byrde ‘wealthy’, or perhaps ‘well-born, noble’ answers phonetically, and the sense ‘well-born’ or ‘wealthy lady’, would apparently make it a suitable companion-word to beorn. But the rarity of the OE. adj. (found once, Oros. I. i. 15, and there masc., se byrdesta ‘the wealthiest man’) presents obvious difficulties.]
    A poetic word for ‘woman, lady’, corresponding to the masculine BERNE; in later use chiefly = ‘young lady, maiden’. (See BIRD n. 1d.)
    c1205 LAY. 19271 Æfter Arðhur wes iboren þeo ædie burde [c1275 maide] Æne. a1225 St. Marher. 21 Cum nu forð burde to þi brudgume..alre burde brihtest. c1325 E.E. Allit. P. B. 80 Boþe burnez & burdez. c1340 Cursor M. 12305 (Trin.) Ioseph went also soone Wiþ him marie þat burde [v.r. bird] bolde. 1377 LANGL. P. Pl. B. XIX. 131 The berdes þo songe Saul interfecit mille, et dauid decem milia. 1393 Ibid. C. XXII. 135 The buyrdes [þo] songen. c1400 Destr. Troy 12037 Fro bale deth þe burd [Helen] for to saue. c1430 Hymns Virg. (1867) 13 Heil þou blessid beerde in whom [crist] was piȝt. c1440 York Myst. xli. 209 But Mary byrde, thowe neyd not soo. a1560 ROLLAND Crt. Venus IV. 418 Thay wald Venus make content Be sum new burd. ?a1600 Ballad in D. Wilson Mem. Edinb. 33 My birde ladie in Halyroode. 17.. Fair Helen II. in Scott Minstr. Sc. B. 103 When in my arms burd Helen dropt. 1858 MORRIS Welland Riv. 229 ‘It is some burd’, the fair dame said..‘Has come to see your bonny face’.

  3. fimus scarabaeus says

    there I be, I tort it be reeding, riteng and reckoning
    as reckoning no longer be taught, as everybody be part of the credit card fodder,no longer need to count their change.

  4. Here’s some evidence (or at least a detailed opinion) that Sir Williams meant the toast humorously and has been slandered with the illiteracy charge. (See paragraph in middle of the book page. The rest of the book looks pretty interesting, as well.)

  5. s/b “Sir William,” of course.

  6. I think all 3 look deliberate: “The British tars of Old England” sounds like a joke too. I’m not quite sure when “Old England” was exactly but it surely means quite a long time before the person using the expression is speaking, whereas I don’t think “British” was commonly used till the 19th century.

  7. John Emerson says

    Hat is a spelling prescriptivist and a redundancy prescriptivist too. I’m not sayin “Off with his head!”….. No, I’m not saying that at all…..

  8. Is it really true that “soon” adds nothing to “speedy” in the phrase, “A speedy peace, and soon.”? Isn’t it possible that a speedy peace could refer to how the pace of negotiating and enacting the peace, rather than to the interval of time between the utterance of the statement and the peace?

  9. Could ‘bullshit’ come from this meaning of bull, possibly?

  10. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    The most famous sub-species of bull being the Irish Bull, whereof the leading utterer must have been Sir Boyle Roche, Bart., the eighteenth century parliamentarian.
    Responsible for such gems as “All along the untrodden paths of the future, I can see the footprints of an unseen hand.” More at Wikiquote.

  11. Oh, that’s great. Thanks. I hadn’t heard of him before now, but it was he who said ‘for what has posterity ever done for us?’.
    And then there’s the Papal bull.

  12. Thanks, Martin. From his link: “A writer in Nota and Queries says that an aged member of the corporation, now deceased, assured him that Sir William Curtis, although a man of limited education, was very shrewd, and not so ignorant as to suppose his presumed orthography was correct. He chose the phrase simply as a joke.” I am happy to correct the record, and I apologize to the shade of the shrewd and jokey Sir William!

  13. Oh well, this is what Wiki says, ‘”Bull”, meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century (Concise Oxford Dictionary), whereas the term “bullshit” is popularly considered to have been first used in 1915, in American slang…The word “bull” itself may have derived from the Old French boul meaning “fraud, deceit” (Oxford English Dictionary). The term “horseshit” is a near synonym’, except to farmers, horses and bulls.

  14. John Emerson says

    “Bull” in the sense of “nonesense” is from Latin Bulla, a seal on a document –> Papal Bull –> “bull” –> “bullshit”.

  15. John, I’ll thank you to confine your mendacity to the field of Dravidian etymologies, where you run less risk of misleading people.

  16. John Emerson says

    You’re a Catholic?

  17. John Emerson says

    Seriously, I take it all back. It was a Protestant joke from my 9th grade history class in 1960.

  18. John Emerson: Latin Bulla, a seal on a document
    the part about the seal on the papal bull at least is not baloney.

  19. Sir William Curtis… a man of limited education
    As am I, which is why I am summoning up the temerity needed to repeat my my request for instruction. I mangled the wording the first time I asked, but I am interested in learning the answer, if possible.
    Is it really true that “soon” adds nothing to “speedy” in the phrase, “A speedy peace, and soon.”? Isn’t it possible that a speedy peace could refer to the pace of negotiating and enacting the peace, rather than to the interval of time between the utterance of the statement and the peace? Or is there only one way to read this properly, with “soon” being redundant? I am asking for edification, not out of contrariness (although I am a lifelong contrarian).

  20. Thanks to Eimear for the Boyle Roche gems. I really needed a good belly laugh today.

    As I write these words, I am holding a rapier in one hand and a pistol in the other.

    I thought these were tongue in cheek from the beginning. I have noticed that not everyone has my humor gene though. Some incredibly intellectual people just don’t get subtle humor. Just like some people (like my brother) who can dance around calculus have to use spellcheck to write even a loveletter. I was once in a technical class of about 30 engineering types and only two of us could write at all.

  21. Crown, A.J.P. says

    I think you’re quite right Stuart, but I am very tired.

  22. Stuart, I’m not saying I’m old enough to remember this guy, but…my college Webster’s says an archaic meaning of speed is “prosperity in an undertaking : SUCCESS” A lot of words change meaning over time. It sound like this might even be a pun–I mean, how DID the meaning change, but if you want to know more, someone else will have to be the one to dig deeper for it.

  23. Isn’t it possible that a speedy peace could refer to the pace of negotiating and enacting the peace, rather than to the interval of time between the utterance of the statement and the peace?
    Someone with more knowledge of early 19th-century usage than I would have to rule on that, but the fact that it was included by an early 19th-century source in a selection of “bulls” strongly suggests that it was taken as a redundancy at the time.

  24. Crown, A.J.P. says

    Even if it was taken as a redundancy at the time, Stuart’s distinction could still be what the author meant to say.

  25. Thanks, Your Marsjesty. I may have watched too much M.A.S.H. as an impressionable child, because I was thinking of the protracted and definitely non-speedy peace which ended the fighting in that war. The hopes that the peace would come “soon” featured often in the series, but the non-speedy nature of the hoped-for peace was also regularly highlighted.

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