Did you know these hilarious differences between American and British English?

Many English users around the world use the two spellings interchangeably, often depending on which version their word-processing spell-checker favours (or favors)

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 5 Jan 2023, 11:08 PM

Early in the life of this column, I wrote about some of the differences between British and American English, but did not discuss the most visible difference for literate Anglophones — spellings. I was reminded of this omission recently when a kerfuffle broke out in Australia over a letter written by King Charles III to the Governor of Victoria, commiserating with her about the floods in her state. It began: “Whilst I realize that this emergency is not over…”

“Whilst” passed muster with Australians as one of the acceptable eccentricities of royal usage, but “realize” left many Australians shocked. One purist erupted in print. “Realize?! I had to read the letter more than once,” she wrote. “To zee, or not to zee?” quipped another. For generations of schoolchildren trained by British teachers have been taught to write “realise”, while Americans “realized” otherwise. (And whilst we are at it, “zee” is not the King’s English either; the Brits, and those they colonised, not colonized, are taught to say “zed”.)

Ironically, the King’s letter was suitably accurate in traditional terms, since “realize” was the common spelling in Elizabethan England. Much of the preference for “s” comes from the French origins of many English words — the verb “realiser” in French (meaning “to realise”) is at the root of the English spelling. But the Americans went for the z-option, just as they preferred the Elizabethan “fall” to the later-English “autumn” now used in modern Britain. Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary supported the s-spelling, while Noah Webster’s in America chose the z, and the two versions have existed ever since.

Many English users around the world use the two spellings interchangeably, often depending on which version their word-processing spell-checker favours (or favors, if your default language is “English (US)” rather than “English (India)” which this colonised columnist favours.) Noah Webster, seeking to standardise spellings in American English when preparing his famous dictionary during the 1780s, not only turned every -ise into -ize, he also transformed “gaol” into “jail”, “plough” into “plow”, and “labour” into “labor”. Any English teacher scrutinising your text in Britain would dock you points for using any of the latter spellings.

The British are much more old-fashioned in staying true to word origins in determining spellings — thus “mediaeval” in English, whereas America goes for “medieval” without its additional Greek “a”, and “manoeuvre” in English rather than the American “maneuver”, which is less faithful to the French root word “oeuvre”.

In 1906, the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had given away much of his fortune endowing public libraries, created a Simplified Spelling Board to “rationalize” American spellings. Carnegie and his supporters argued that the only thing preventing English from becoming a “world language” and an instrument of global peace was its “contradictory and difficult spelling”. They were careful not to speak of reform but of “simplification by omission”. This would be achieved by dropping unnecessary letters, which were not pronounced anyway, like the superfluous “a” and “o” in “mediaeval” and “manouevre”. Thus “anemia”, “anesthesia”, “archeology”, “encyclopedia” and “orthopedic” replaced their British versions, whose spellings still reflected fealty to their word origins in classical Greek or Latin. The Simplified Spelling Board also changed the British -re endings to -er, as in “caliber” for “calibre” and “fiber” for “fibre”, and dropped the Frenchified spellings of “catalogue to “catalog” and “programme” to “program”. (All these changed spellings have caught on and become the American standard.)

But the Simplified Spelling Board went even farther. Why should the letter “i” be present in the word “believe”, they asked, and also changed “through” to “thru” and “surprise” to “surprize”. These and others were a step too far, and a backlash began. When President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the recommendations and vowed to use the new spellings in his own communications, the press had a field day. The Louisville Courier-Journal mocked him: “Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him to notis. He makes tretis without the consent of the Senit.” Nothing works as well as ridicule. The President rescinded his order, and American English is still recognisably English, give or take an extra zed!


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