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Whichever branch of the English language you are brought up with, you have to admit parts of it are an inconsistent mess. There are words that are spelled broadly the same but pronounced entirely differently—cough, bough, borough, through, brought—words that are spelled entirely differently but pronounced the same—write, right, two, too, to—and words that do the same job and have only slightly different spellings—obfuscate, obfusticate.
And of course, as with most things that are old and full of character, there’s a lot of beauty in that mess, but also a lot of room for people to argue over which aspect of the mess best exemplifies the true spirit of this living, breathing, evolving thing we all use every day.
One particularly vexatious argument concerns the lack of uniform spellings between British and American English. The simple reason for this is that England and America went their separate ways before anyone became unduly rigorous about spelling words the same way every time. The firm nailing down of language happened in earnest during the 1800s, on both sides of the Atlantic, and thanks largely to the reforming zeal of American lexicographer Noah Webster, it was with markedly different results in the U.S. than in Victorian Britain.
Seeking to wrest control of the language from the British ruling classes, Noah wrote three books that aimed to make a tidy pile of that mess we were talking about. One on grammar, one on reading, and one on spelling. His first—originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language, then The American Spelling Book, then The Elementary Spelling Book—became the standard text book from which American teachers taught spelling for 100 years, and it was from reprints and reissues of that original text that Noah began to subtly refine words, spelling them according to how they sound.
So while British English still insists on a c in the word defense, Webster changed it to an s. Theatre and centre were simplified into theater and center. Plough became plow, axe became ax, catalogue became catalog, and flavour, honour, savour, saviour, candour, behaviour, colour, armour, demeanour, glamour, harbour and all the rest lost their u.
This was largely to differentiate those words from the ones that end in -our and sound like -ower. As in hour, flour, sour and so on. Some words still enjoy a dual existence, in that the U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour kept its u, as it was named after Lieutenant* James Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour. Glamour, being a Scots word, often keeps its u as well.
Ironically, the one word that Noah Webster failed in his attempts to get it spelled exactly as it rolls off the tongue is tongue itself, which he argued should be tung, but somehow this was a step too far, despite the loss of the concluding ue in words like catalog and analog.
I’d have stopped before the e was lopped off ax too, but it’s too late to try and graft it back on now.
*The reverse approach to Webster’s—saying things as they are spelled—can be found in this word, which the British pronounce “leftenant.”
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Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic