Why Do Yanks Spell Words Differently?

Why Do Yanks Spell Words Differently?

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” So goes the old chestnut commonly attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw. One of those separations is in the spelling of words like colour (color), theatre (theater), and realise (realize). But how did this separation occur?

Spelling Before the American Revolution

Modern English has always been a tricky language to wrangle. While it has some basis in Anglo-Saxon, English has been altered by Norman conquerors, Dutch typesetters, and orthographers who wanted to pretty up the language. And while spelling textbooks have been popular among the English upper classes for centuries, English spelling was not completely standard. In fact, the -or word ending that we now associate with American English in words like “honour,” “colour,” and “labour” was preferred by some English lexicographers, who preferred to expunge the French “u,” an artifact of the Norman conquest, from the English language and return to the words’ Latin roots.

Early American colonial spelling was a bit more of a mess, with such creative spellings like “jinerll” for “general” appearing in official Hartford documents even as late as 1716. But eventually, two very important books would go a long way to standardising English in both England and its colonies.

The first of those books is Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue, a textbook designed to teach children proper English spelling and pronunciation. The book was published in London in 1740, and then appeared in America seven years later thanks to America’s gatekeeper of the printed word, Benjamin Franklin. The speller is important in part because it was such a hit, with numerous Brits and colonists reared on Dilworth’s approach to the English language, and in part because it would provide the basis for a later American speller.

The other book is Samuel Johnson’s 1755 masterwork A Dictionary of the English Language. English language dictionaries had existed before Samuel Johnson, but mainly for obscure words. Johnson, on the other hand, created a comprehensive record of the language. If anyone wanted to know the definition or spelling of just about any word, they could simply look it up. It was a revolutionary text, one that would go unrivalled for generations.

There was a bit of a prescriptivist bent to Johnson’s massive undertaking. He felt that the English language was a mess (calling the language’s inconsistencies “a mark of weakness”) and that his dictionary could help to standardise the language. It was Johnson’s dictionary that finally codified the -our in so many British words — although some of his “u”s have since been dropped for words he spelled “horrour,” “emperour,” “mirrour,” and so forth. He also ended a number of words like “publick,” “attick,” “critick,” and “chaotick,” with a “k,” something that disappeared from English spelling within a few decades.

Johnson did not mind the changing language, however. After nine years working on his dictionary, he recognised that English was a changing, growing thing, and there was nothing any lexicographer could do to stop that change. As much as Johnson’s dictionary did to standardize the English language, he came to believe that a dictionary writer’s job was not to prescribe language, but to document how people actually use it. He began his endeavour (apologies for my American spelling, Dr. Johnson) a prescriptivist and ended it a descriptivist.

One revolution that Johnson did not approve of, however, was the American Revolution, which he believed would end with “English superiority and American obedience.”

A New Country and a New Linguistic Identity

Johnson’s political predictions proved less prescient than his linguistic ones, and after America won its independence from England, questions of national identity arose. Some thinkers of the era actually wondered if Americans should even speak English anymore, as the language suggested the yoke of England. More radical suggestions included changing the national language to German (which roughly ten per cent of the country already spoke) or Hebrew (which was taught in some New England schools).

Benjamin Franklin, meanwhile, had his own idea for the English language. Franklin proposed a major spelling reform, on that make English spelling completely phonetic. This would involve an overhaul of the alphabet, losing c, j, q, w, x, and y, and adding six new letters. The idea never caught on.

The Speller and Noah Webster

Into the linguistic fray stepped Noah Webster, lexicographer, writer, and relentless self-promoter. Webster was thoroughly Yankee; his family on both sides were American colonists several generations back and he even had an ancestor on the Mayflower. Webster’s family wasn’t particularly wealthy; his father was a farmer, but he did end up attending Yale and later joined the Connecticut bar. He developed relationships with many of America’s most prominent citizens, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but he had a reputation for being rather obnoxious. Webster suffered from profound social anxiety, and tended to compensate for it with arrogance and bravado. Dr. Benjamin Rush was fond of telling a story about when he once greeted Webster and congratulated him for arriving in Philadelphia. Webster reportedly responded, “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia upon the occasion!”

Webster worked as a teacher and a lawyer, but he came to national prominence thanks to his spelling textbook. Webster had taught children with Dilworth’s speller, but found it pedagogically lacking. So, using Dilworth’s book as a starting point, Webster wrote a speller of his own. This was meant to be a thoroughly American speller. While Dilworth’s speller included the names and pronunciations of English towns, Webster’s included prominent American cities, with a special emphasis on his native Connecticut.

Webster’s speller actually used Samuel Johnson’s spellings rather than any newfangled American ones (although it was these spellers that had Americans pronouncing the letter Z as “zee” rather than “zed”), but Webster espoused some patriotic ideas regarding his textbook. He felt that, unlike England, which had a host of regional accents, America should be united under a single set of pronunciation rules. Naturally, he chose the pronunciation that he grew up with, and his spellers were designed to teach children to speak like they had stepped out of New Haven. Webster’s speller was a best seller, and he became a great advocated of copyright protection in large part because of it. He drafted America’s first copyright laws and was quick to accuse competitors of plagiarism (a bit ironic since he had borrowed a great deal from Dilworth’s text).

Webster wasn’t a fan of Benjamin Franklin’s new alphabet scheme, but he did eventually warm to the idea of spelling reform. He wrote essays advocating for a more streamlined orthography, one that would steer American English in a new direction. He imagined that, one day American would be as distinct from British English “as the modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from the German, or from one another.” And his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language proposed such an orthography. Some of the spellings in that dictionary are familiar to modern readers — “jail” for “gaol,” “plowed” for “ploughed,” “humor” for “humour.” Others seem a bit odd today, like “speek” for “speak,” “determin” for “determine,” “bred” for “bread,” “bilt” for “built,” and “groop” for “group.” The dictionary was a financial and critical failure, and Webster was thoroughly ridiculed for what many commentators saw as prescriptivism gone mad.

It would be another 27 years before Webster put out another dictionary, his far more comprehensive An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although by this point, the older (and perhaps wiser) Webster had abandoned some his more extreme spellings, this volume contained many of the spellings we associate with modern American English. Words like “theatre” and “centre” became “theater” and “center.” “Masque” became “mask” and “offence” was now “offense.” And words like “colour,” “favourite,” and “mould” each lost their “u” (in part because Webster was staunchly anti-French).

And, as David Wolfman points out in his book Righting the Mother Tongue, America was a different place when Webster published this new volume. For one thing, many of Webster’s critics were dead, and the social environment was more accepting of Webster’s populist views on spelling — namely, that English words should be easier to spell. And Johnson’s dictionary, now 70 years old, was no longer the linguistic juggernaut it once had been. Although the $US20 ($26), two-volume tome was prohibitively expensive for most households ($US364 ($478) in today’s dollars), it did find its way onto the shelves of prominent scholars and President Andrew Jackson. Because the tome contained 70,000 entries and included distinctly American words (including Webster’s sole coinage, “demoralize”), it became an invaluable work of American linguistic scholarship, though Webster’s outlaw spelling was still not without its critics.

Webster’s brand of spelling worked its way into American homes thanks to George and Charles Merriam. After Webster’s death, the Merriams obtained the rights to Webster’s American Dictionary as well as his spellers. They hired a team of scholars to revise Webster’s book and weed out some of his more suspect etymologies. Instead of a $US20 ($26) two-volume work, the Merriams published the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a single $US6 ($8) volume. It was still pricey, but now affordable to middle-class Americans. The Merriams also happened to be master marketers, getting thousands of copies of their new dictionary into American public schools.

British spelling in America did not go out quietly, however. In 1856, the United States Democratic Review ran a series of pieces in which both supporters and critics of the late Noah Webster debated proper American orthography. Questions of -re vs. -er and -our vs. -or raged through the pages. Interestingly, Joseph Worcester, author of a rival dictionary, argued for Webster’s usage simply because it was the prevailing usage in the United States. He conceded that Webster’s spelling had won out.

President Roosevelt’s (Doomed) Spelling Reform

The gaps between American and British English could have yawned much wider if President Theodore Roosevelt’s order to reform American spelling had taken hold. Following the lead of the Simplified Spelling Board, Roosevelt ordered the Public Printer in 1906 to alter the spelling of 300 different words. The words included many words that ended in -ed, which would now end in -t — so that “mixed” became “mixt,” “pressed” became “prest,” “possessed” became “possest” and so on. And the “-ugh” was dropped for words like “although” (“altho”), “though” (“tho”), and “thorough” (“thoro”).

Members of the SSB included folks like Mark Twain, Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal system), dictionary editors, publishing magnate Henry Holt, and Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, but that pedigree was not enough to protect the 300-word list from ridicule. Critics had a field day with the list, concocting new and increasingly bizarre spellings in order to mock Roosevelt and the list. (And, naturally, a lot of fun was had with the spelling Roosevelt’s own name.) The president ended up retracting the order, and the printer returned to conventional American spelling. It’s proof that, while it can and does happen, spelling reform can be and extremely difficult thing to achieve. Sources:

Marsha E. Ackermann, How Do You Spell Ruzevelt?: A History of Spelling in America Today and Yesterday

Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture

David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling


  • Might want to go back and proof read this, specifically, the spelling aspects of some of the words. Being that this is supposed to be showing the differences between American English “Center” and British English “Centre” your sentence:
    Words like “theatre” and “centre” became “theatre” and “center.”
    doesn’t make much sense.

    • Thanks for the spot. These errors were down to a coding snafu that automatically removes American spellings from articles. (I thought I’d caught them all, but apparently not!) This has now been fixed.

      • The code to remove American spelling missed another one – standardise vs standardize

        As much as Johnson’s dictionary did to standardize the English language

        • The -ise -ize thing isn’t really a US vs UK thing. It’s more to do with the origin of the word. Words with greek/latin roots are supposed to be spelt -ize, those from old french get the -ise treatment. There are exceptions, authorise has an s even though it’s greek/latin based, analyse is greek based but it comes from a combination of words to mean break up. English…

          • The ize/ise dichotomy isnt just a Greek/Latin thing either. British dictionaries, notably Oxford, and latterly almost all, and publishers and printers, hav (sic) also used -ize. The Times changed from it in 1991,

          • No it has nothing to do with the origin of the word and everything to do with the origin of the speaker..

            Authorise = Uk
            Authorize = Us

            Or are you saying these are two different words with different meanings?

          • He’s saying that the -ise vs. -ize distinction used to be tied to the language roots of the word; it wasn’t uniform.

            In recent years, this has largely changed to the distinction you describe; the Americans always used -ize and the Brits/Australians use -ise. Since Latin and Greek are no longer taught routinely (in my school they weren’t even an option, and that was 30 years ago) most students have no idea of the origin of the roots of the words used, so the distinction becomes a largely pointless exercise in memory retention – and has settled down to “-ise” in British usage vs. -ize for Americans.

            Since most non-Commonwealth countries basically learn American English, it also means that “English” as taught outside of the Commonwealth is mostly American English.

          • gregorvorbarra: The distinction should be “tied” to the sound, rather than the words roots.

            In numeracy each numeral has its own unvarying value. Why should literacy letters and digrafs vary?

            The letter s is a soft sibilant, termed “unvoiced”, and in its place in such words as sit, loss, also.

            Its mate z is “voiced”, and is proper for daze, zebra, buzz.

            Both letters show their correct sounds in size.

            Most -ise and –ize suffixes hav the “voiced” sound, and so should be using z.

          • No idea why you’re arguing with ME about it. I sort of agree with you, but English spelling is not entirely rational in any of its dialects, otherwise we would be spelling “thorough” as “thurro.” Or for that matter, “rise” as “rize” or perhaps even “ryz” –

            It’s a point of fact that standard Australian and English usage is to spell -ize/-ise endings as -ise. Live with it. Neither British nor American English entirely follow rational spelling rules. If you want a language with rational spelling rules, speak Esperanto.

            You you think you are spelling using Australian rules and using -ize endings, then you would typically be wrong (with a handful of exceptions). See https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/news/view/editor/article/79/ for a discussion from the professionals.

          • gregorvorbarra : I didnt know i was arguing with u. I was trying to say that each letter and digraf should hav just one sound, as numerals each hav just one value. And our spelling should be based on an agreed dialect (“standard English”?), as it supposedly is now.

            Rather than a “standard Australian or English” usage, i think there should be a universal spelling usage, as English is a world language, And that the spelling should be logical, consistent, and so predictable, so that learners dont hav to jump thru unnecessary hoops to become literat.

          • Ironically this is a case where an attempt to rationalise the language probably made things a bit worse.

            Essentially, a handful of Americans (Franklin, Webster, a couple of others) who also thought that spelling was screwed up suggested changes; in Franklin’s case, a complete and entirely rational overhaul that nobody followed BECAUSE it was so comprehensive, and in Webster’s case a handful of changes that gave us most of the spelling variations that resulted in modern Americal English.

            When the Americans followed Webster’s usages and the British didn’t, we wound up with the British/American English spelling split. Most of the changes made are relatively rational (-ize/-ise, -or/-our, the pronunciation of “lieutenant”) but I can certainly understand why the Brits did not feel inclined to suddenly switch to the spellings proposed by a handful of people who didn’t even live in the home country of the language.

            Australia, which at the time was still culturally dominated by Britain, naturally followed the British lead.

            Anyway, you mis-spelled unnessesseri (and bicum).

            Basically it comes down to the old “if wishes were horses” saying; pretending that reality is other than it is is very noble but will get your report bounced by your manager (although most will probably let American spelling slide, if only because spell checkers so frequently default to American English.)

          • gregorvorbarra: Using an effectiv process, including recognition of peoples emotional reactions, is a major part of bringing about change.

            Personally, i favor a gradual but significant step by step. (in my own small current step i hav not reached unnessesary or becum yet). It may be a 10-year (or 15?) with adherence to at least one rule being introduced at each step. Schools could be a step ahead, with children leading the way and possibly urging their parents to follow suit.

            I would not expect improvement in literacy learning to be particularly noticeable at each step, but i would foresee a marked lift in reading and riting abilities at the end of the campaign.

  • Interesting. Although, if people who insist on correcting incorrect spelling and grammar are considered “grammar Nazis” then people who criticise you for dropping the u or reversing the -re must be the equivalent of a Gestapo agent.

  • U dont hav (sic) to apologize for using American spellings. As English is now a world language – rather than national or provincial – surely we can use any spelling from any reputable source, such as a dictionary.

    And American spelling is not that radical. Its differences from British spellings ar marginal, and hav little bearing on any literacy advantage that a spelling upgrade would bring.

    There ar those among us who would go even further, as i do in eliminating the “silent e” from words that shouldnt hav it.

    • There ar those among us who would go even further, as i do in eliminating the “silent e” from words that shouldnt hav it.

      Oh… And here I thought you were semi literate…

      • I’d spell it literat. Its similar to deliberat (which should be the adjectivs spelling), as distinct from deliberate, the verb.

        Have is the classic example of a useless, indeed misleading, silent e.

        It does not match save, grave, pave, shave, etc.

        • Except you’d mispronounce deliberATE if you dropped the E. Same with the word LiterATE.

          Also you meant to say “adjective’s” but I guess your terrible spelling leads to terrible punctuation as well.

          Good luck in life. You’re gonna need it.

          • Thanks for the good wishes. I hav had my luck, twice at proofreading two newspapers, and as a teacher. U can relax. I am a “good” speller!

            Dropping the “silent e” from the adjectiv deliberat differentiates its sound from the verb deliberate, which ends with a “long” a syllable. Eg:-

            It was a deliberat action.
            They took a long time to deliberate the motion.

  • I have long found it interesting that England, which has a long-standing dislike for the French, continue to use the French spelling for so many words. I guess maybe to change would be to adopt a system that is used by the colonial rebels (probably seen as the terrorists of the late 18th century!). Puts them between a rock and a hard place.

    On a related note, I teach English at a university in Thailand. Much of “official” Thailand is dominated by UK English, e.g. the English versions of official documents, major English-language newspapers, etc. Many of the students are interested in learning US English since they are looking to go there for further study or work-study. The class materials, published mostly in either the UK or US, can be either. My rule is I don’t care which brand they use as long as they are consistent within that document. Most settle on one and stay with it for the duration.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!