Brits and Americans may share a mother tongue, but when it comes to spelling a handful of common terms, we just can’t seem to settle on a shared favorite—or is it favourite?—approach.
Thankfully, most words in English are spelled the same wherever the language is spoken. But a select few take different spellings on opposite sides of the Atlantic. These are some of the most common discrepancies between American and British spelling (with the latter often prevailing as well in Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth nations):
- words ending in -or in the US and -our in the UK: behavior/behaviour, color/colour, favorite/favourite, honor/honour, neighbor/neighbour
- words ending in -er in the US and -re in the UK: center/centre, fiber/fibre, liter/litre, meager/meagre, theater/theatre
- words ending in -ize or -yze in the US and -ise or -yse in the UK: analyze/analyse, apologize/apologise, organize/organise, paralyze/paralyse, realize/realise
So what explains these differences?
In the early years of the printing press, English spelling was much more variable than it is today. Without an agreed-upon standard to guide them, writers of the 15th–18th centuries often spelled words according to their own whim. As a result, some words developed multiple common spellings.
In fact, a number of spellings that we now think of as “American” actually made their earliest appearances in British writing.
Favorite appears as spelled in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), while the Shakespeare play usually known as Love’s Labour’s Lost was originally published in 1598 as Loves Labors Lost. Shakespeare also preferred center to centre; the former word shows up ten times in his plays and the latter only once. And while it’s tempting to think of the -ize ending in words like organize as a zippy modern invention, it’s been found in English since the 13th century.
For years, spellings such as favorite and favourite coexisted in Great Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. The fact that they are now widely understood as regional variations is largely because of two dictionary makers: Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.
A tale of two dictionaries
Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) wasn’t the first English dictionary, but it was the most ambitious that had been published at that time. In constructing it, he had made calculated decisions about which spelling variations to use. At the time, French-derived spellings such as honour and theatre were in vogue in England.
Johnson was no Francophile (he once proclaimed France “worse than Scotland in everything but climate”), but he thought there was etymological justification for these spellings. He contended that a word’s spelling was dependent on its derivation, and he surmised that words like these had passed directly from French into English. The popularity of Johnson’s dictionary thus helped to cement -our and -re spellings as the British standard.
Spelling as a patriotic act
Later, in the newly independent United States, Noah Webster made his own mark on the English language through his widely read textbook American Spelling Book (1783) and his influential American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).
More reform-minded than Johnson, Webster sought to simplify English through the greater use of phonetic spellings, such as masheen for machine and laf for laugh. His motivation was both pedagogical and patriotic; he thought that making American English easier to learn, as well as more removed from British English, would help unite the young country.
Most of Webster’s invented spellings failed to take hold, what a surprise. So, he opted for existing spellings that were in line with his aims. Expressing distaste for words “clothed with the French livery,” Webster rejected the fussy -our and -re spellings that Johnson had helped elevate in Great Britain in favor of the simpler -or and -er endings that were already at hand. As a result, the latter became dominant in American prose.
-ize takes the prize
Despite the many differences between Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries, both include analyze and realize rather than analyse and realise. In truth, -ize and -yze have never really vanished in British English.
While many British media outlets today stick with organise and paralyse, the esteemed Oxford University Press opts for organize and paralyze. A note at the entry for -ize in the Oxford English Dictionary concludes that “there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed.”
Of course, these examples aren’t the only differences between British and American spelling. But they tell a fascinating story about the global development of the English language and the role of dictionaries in shaping national preferences.