Let’s take a moment to analyze something that’s at the center of a lot of arguments I have with my favorite editors: how words like honor, neighbor, and theater should be spelled. I think that sentence should say “analyse,” “centre,” “favourite,” “honour,” “neighbour,” and “theatre”—my American colleagues disagree. So, why do Americans spell some words differently to Britons (and Australians, Canadians, Irish, and most other English speakers).
A Brief History of English
Correct, proscribed, official spellings are a relatively new thing, linguistically speaking. The language we recognize as Old English was first spoken around 1500 years ago. It’s completely unintelligible to modern speakers, but it is the root of a huge amount of what we speak now. Over time it transitioned into Middle English (roughly 1000 AD to 1450 AD), Early Modern English (1500 AD to 1700 AD), and later Modern English—which is what this article is written in.
For much of this time, the bulk of the population was illiterate. They could speak English, but they couldn’t read or write it. How to spell a word was a meaningless distinction to them.
To the few people who were literate, spelling was also a much looser thing. For example, in his plays written between 1589 and 1614, Shakespeare used center and centre, color and colour, and other inconsistent spellings interchangeably. His approach to spelling his own name was even wilder: he alternatively spelled it Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Wilm Shakspere, and William Shakspeare. (You’ll note he never actually spelled it Shakespeare, the accepted spelling today.)
It wasn’t until dictionaries took off in the mid-1700s that things started to change.
Dr. Johnson’s Big Book
Samuel Johnson wasn’t the first to compile a dictionary, but he was the first to compile one that shaped the course of language history. His Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined 42,733 words, and for 150 years, until the Oxford English Dictionary replaced it, was the preeminent British dictionary.
Johnson took a conservative approach to his dictionary. When it came to a choice of two spellings, he went with the more traditional options, like “publick” instead of “public”. He also had a thing for French spellings when words were derived from French, which is why he went with spellings like honour, theatre, and centre, instead of the simpler honor, theater, and center—all of which were in use in England at the time.
While some of these older spellings have fallen out of fashion, Johnson’s decision to favor (or rather, favour) the -our and -re endings over the -or and -er alternatives, is a big part of why those spellings are still used in England today. But what about things across the Atlantic?
Noah Webster’s approach to spellings was a little different from Johnson’s. In his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster actively tried to simplify English words he viewed as too complex—or too British. He wanted the newly independent America to have its cultural and linguistic independence too.
Where Johnson had gone with the French -re and -our spellings, Webster went with the -er and -or versions: center, color, favor. He also dropped the “k” at the end of words like “publick” and “musick”, something that later spread back to England, and replaced the “ph” in sulphur with an “f,” making it sulfer.
Not all Webster’s revisions were successful, however. For example, his attempts to use phonetic spellings for machine (“masheen”), women (“wimmen”), tongue (“tung”), and laugh (“laf”) all failed to take hold.
Blame It On the Dictionaries
And there you have it: two men and their dictionaries are responsible for a huge amount of the differences between modern American English and British English. It used to be a much more fluid language, and because of their choices (and political positions), different official spellings took hold on the different sides of the Atlantic.