The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VII - Differences in Spelling

§ 1

Typical Forms —Some of the salient differences between American and English spelling are shown in the following list of common words:

American English

Anemia anaemia

aneurism aneurysm

annex (noun) annexe

arbor arbour

armor armour

asphalt asphalte

ataxia ataxy

ax axe

balk (verb) baulk

baritone barytone

bark (ship) barque

behavior behaviour

behoove behove

buncombe bunkum

burden (ship's) burthen

cachexia cachexy

caliber calibre

candor candour

center centre

check (bank) cheque

checkered chequered

cider cyder

clamor clamour

clangor clangour

cloture closure[1]

color colour

connection connexion

councilor councillor

counselor counsellor

cozy cosy

curb kerb

cyclopedia cyclopaedia

defense defence

demeanor demeanour

diarrhea diarrhoea

draft (ship's) draught

dreadnaught dreadnought

dryly drily

ecology oecology

ecumenical oecumenical

edema oedema

encyclopedia encyclopaedia

endeavor endeavour

eon aeon

epaulet epaulette

esophagus oesophagus

fagot faggot

favor favour

favorite favourite

fervor fervour

flavor flavour

font (printer's) fount

foregather forgather

forego forgo

form (printer's) forme

fuse fuze

gantlet (to run the—) gauntlet

glamor glamour

good-by good-bye

gram gramme

gray grey

harbor harbour

honor honour

hostler ostler

humor humour

inclose enclose

indorse endorse

inflection inflexion

inquiry enquiry

jail gaol

jewelry jewellery

jimmy (burglar's) jemmy

labor labour

laborer labourer

liter litre

maneuver manoeuvre

medieval mediaeval

meter metre

misdemeanor misdemeanour

mold mould

mollusk mollusc

molt moult

mustache moustache

neighbor neighbour

neighborhood neighbourhood

net (adj.) nett

odor odour

offense offence

pajamas pyjamas

parlor parlour

peas (plu. of pea) pease

picket (military) piquet

plow plough

pretense pretence

program programme

pudgy podgy

pygmy pigmy

rancor rancour

rigor rigour

rumor rumour

savory savoury

scimitar scimetar

septicemia septicaemia

show (verb) shew

siphon syphon

siren syren

skeptic sceptic

slug (verb) slog

slush slosh

splendor splendour

stanch staunch

story (of a house) storey

succor succour

taffy toffy

tire (noun) tyre

toilet toilette

traveler traveller

tumor tumour

valor valour

vapor vapour

veranda verandah

vial phial

vigor vigour

vise (a tool) vice

wagon waggon

woolen woollen

§ 2

General Tendencies—This list is by no means exhaustive. According to a recent writer upon the subject, "there are 812 words in which the prevailing American spelling differs from the English."[2] But enough examples are given to reveal a number of definite tendencies. American, in general, moves toward simplified forms of spelling more rapidly than English, and has got much further along the road. Redundant and unnecessary letters have been dropped from whole groups of words—the u from the group of nouns in -our, with the sole exception of Saviour, and from such words as mould and baulk; the e from annexe, asphalte, axe, forme, pease, storey, etc.; the duplicate consonant from waggon, nett, faggot, woollen, jeweller, councillor, etc., and the silent foreign suffixes from toilette, epaulette, programme, verandah, etc. In addition, simple vowels have been substituted for degenerated diphthongs in such words as anaemia, [Pg246] oesophagus, diarrhoea and mediaeval, most of them from the Greek.

Further attempts in the same direction are to be seen in the substitution of simple consonants for compound consonants, as in plow, bark, check, vial and draft; in the substitution of i for y to bring words into harmony with analogues, as in tire, cider and baritone (cf. wire, rider, merriment), and in the general tendency to get rid of the somewhat uneuphonious y, as in ataxia and pajamas. Clarity and simplicity are also served by substituting ct for x in such words as connection and inflection, and s for c in words of the defense group. The superiority of jail to gaol is made manifest by the common mispronunciation of the latter, making it rhyme with coal. The substitution of i for e in such words as indorse, inclose and jimmy is of less patent utility, but even here there is probably a slight gain in euphony. Of more obscure origin is what seems to be a tendency to avoid the o-sound, so that the English slog becomes slug, podgy becomes pudgy, nought becomes naught, slosh becomes slush, toffy becomes taffy, and so on. Other changes carry their own justification. Hostler is obviously better American than ostler, though it may be worse English. Show is more logical than shew.[3] Cozy is more nearly phonetic than cosy. Curb has analogues in curtain, curdle, curfew, curl, currant, curry, curve, curtsey, curse, currency, cursory, curtail, cur, curt and many other common words: kerb has very few, and of them only kerchief and kernel are in general use. Moreover, the English themselves use curb as a verb and in all noun senses save that shown in kerbstone.

But a number of anomalies remain. The American substitution of a for e in gray is not easily explained, nor is the substitution of k for c in skeptic and mollusk, nor the retention of e in forego, nor the unphonetic substitution of s for z in fuse, [Pg247] nor the persistence of the first y in pygmy. Here we have plain vagaries, surviving in spite of attack by orthographers. Webster, in one of his earlier books, denounced the k in skeptic as "a mere pedantry," but later on he adopted it. In the same way pygmy, gray and mollusk have been attacked, but they still remain sound American. The English themselves have many more such illogical forms to account for. In the midst of the our-words they cling to a small number in or, among them, stupor. Moreover, they drop the u in many derivatives, for example, in arboreal, armory, clamorously, clangorous, odoriferous, humorist, laborious and rigorism. If it were dropped in all derivatives the rule would be easy to remember, but it is retained in some of them, for example, colourable, favourite, misdemeanour, coloured and labourer. The derivatives of honour exhibit the confusion clearly. Honorary, honorarium and honorific drop the u, but honourable retains it. Furthermore, the English make a distinction between two senses of rigor. When used in its pathological sense (not only in the Latin form of rigor mortis, but as an English word) it drops the u; in all other senses it retains the u. The one American anomaly in this field is Saviour. In its theological sense it retains the u; but in that sense only. A sailor who saves his ship is its savior, not its saviour.

§ 3

The Influence of Webster—At the time of the first settlement of America the rules of English orthography were beautifully vague, and so we find the early documents full of spellings that would give an English lexicographer much pain today. Now and then a curious foreshadowing of later American usage is encountered. On July 4, 1631, for example, John Winthrop wrote in his journal that "the governour built a bark at Mistick, which was launched this day." But during the eighteenth century, and especially after the publication of Johnson's dictionary, there was a general movement in England toward a more inflexible orthography, and many hard and fast rules, still surviving, were then laid down. It was Johnson himself who [Pg248] established the position of the u in the our words. Bailey, Dyche and the other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky[4] and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England. Even in America this usage was not often brought into question until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. True enough, honor appears in the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to have got there rather by accident than by design. In Jefferson's original draft it is spelled honour. So early as 1768 Benjamin Franklin had published his "Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Remarks and Examples Concerning the Same, and an Enquiry Into its Uses" and induced a Philadelphia typefounder to cut type for it, but this scheme was too extravagant to be adopted anywhere, or to have any appreciable influence upon spelling.[5]

It was Noah Webster who finally achieved the divorce between English example and American practise. He struck the first blow in his "Grammatical Institute of the English Language," published at Hartford in 1783. Attached to this work was an appendix bearing the formidable title of "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation," and during the same year, at Boston, he set forth his ideas a second time in the first edition of his "American Spelling Book." The influence of this spelling book was immediate and profound. It took the place in the schools of Dilworth's "Aby-sel-pha," the favorite of the generation preceding, and maintained its authority for fully a century. Until Lyman Cobb entered the lists with his "New Spelling Book," in 1842, its innumerable editions scarcely had [Pg249] any rivalry, and even then it held its own. I have a New York edition, dated 1848, which contains an advertisement stating that the annual sale at that time was more than a million copies, and that more than 30,000,000 copies had been sold since 1783. In the late 40's the publishers, George F. Cooledge & Bro., devoted the whole capacity of the fastest steam press in the United States to the printing of it. This press turned out 525 copies an hour, or 5,250 a day. It was "constructed expressly for printing Webster's Elementary Spelling Book [the name had been changed in 1829] at an expense of $5,000." Down to 1889, 62,000,000 copies of the book had been sold.

The appearance of Webster's first dictionary, in 1806, greatly strengthened his influence. The best dictionary available to Americans before this was Johnson's in its various incarnations, but against Johnson's stood a good deal of animosity to its compiler, whose implacable hatred of all things American was well known to the citizens of the new republic. John Walker's dictionary, issued in London in 1791, was also in use, but not extensively. A home-made school dictionary, issued at New Haven in 1798 or 1799 by one Samuel Johnson, Jr.—apparently no relative of the great Sam—and a larger work published a year later by Johnson and the Rev. John Elliott, pastor in East Guilford, Conn., seem to have made no impression, despite the fact that the latter was commended by Simeon Baldwin, Chauncey Goodrich and other magnificoes of the time and place, and even by Webster himself. The field was thus open to the laborious and truculent Noah. He was already the acknowledged magister of lexicography in America, and there was an active public demand for a dictionary that should be wholly American. The appearance of his first duodecimo, according to Williams,[6] thereby took on something of the character of a national event. It was received, not critically, but patriotically, and its imperfections were swallowed as eagerly as its merits. Later on Webster had to meet formidable critics, at home as well as abroad, but for nearly a quarter of a century he reigned almost unchallenged. Edition after edition of his dictionary was published, [Pg250] each new one showing additions and improvements. Finally, in 1828, he printed his great "American Dictionary of the English Language," in two large octavo volumes. It held the field for half a century, not only against Worcester and the other American lexicographers who followed him, but also against the best dictionaries produced in England. Until very lately, indeed, America remained ahead of England in practical dictionary making.

Webster had declared boldly for simpler spellings in his early spelling books; in his dictionary of 1806 he made an assault at all arms upon some of the dearest prejudices of English lexicographers. Grounding his wholesale reforms upon a saying by Franklin, that "those people spell best who do not know how to spell"—i. e., who spell phonetically and logically—he made an almost complete sweep of whole classes of silent letters—the u in the -our words, the final e in determine and requisite, the silent a in thread, feather and steady, the silent b in thumb, the s in island, the o in leopard, and the redundant consonants in traveler, wagon, jeweler, etc. (English: traveller, waggon, jeweller). More, he lopped the final k from frolick, physick and their analogues. Yet more, he transposed the e and the r in all words ending in re, such as theatre, lustre, centre and calibre. Yet more, he changed the c in all words of the defence class to s. Yet more, he changed ph to f in words of the phantom class, ou to oo in words of the group class, ow to ou in crowd, porpoise to porpess, acre to aker, sew to soe, woe to wo, soot to sut, gaol to jail, and plough to plow. Finally, he antedated the simplified spellers by inventing a long list of boldly phonetic spellings, ranging from tung for tongue to wimmen for women, and from hainous for heinous to cag for keg.

A good many of these new spellings, of course, were not actually Webster's inventions. For example, the change from -our to -or in words of the honor class was a mere echo of an earlier English usage, or, more accurately, of an earlier English uncertainty. In the first three folios of Shakespeare, 1623, 1632 and 1663-6, honor and honour were used indiscriminately and in almost equal proportions; English spelling was still fluid, and [Pg251] the -our-form was not consistently adopted until the fourth folio of 1685. Moreover, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is authority for the statement that the -or-form was "a fashionable impropriety" in England in 1791. But the great authority of Johnson stood against it, and Webster was surely not one to imitate fashionable improprieties. He deleted the u for purely etymological reasons, going back to the Latin honor, favor and odor without taking account of the intermediate French honneur, faveur and odeur. And where no etymological reasons presented themselves, he made his changes by analogy and for the sake of uniformity, or for euphony or simplicity, or because it pleased him, one guesses, to stir up the academic animals. Webster, in fact, delighted in controversy, and was anything but free from the national yearning to make a sensation.

A great many of his innovations, of course, failed to take root, and in the course of time he abandoned some of them himself. In his early "Essay on the Necessity, Advantage and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling" he advocated reforms which were already discarded by the time he published the first edition of his dictionary. Among them were the dropping of the silent letter in such words as head, give, built and realm, making them hed, giv, bilt and relm; the substitution of doubled vowels for decayed diphthongs in such words as mean, zeal and near, making them meen, zeel and neer; and the substitution of sh for ch in such French loan-words as machine and chevalier, making them masheen and shevaleer. He also declared for stile in place of style, and for many other such changes, and then quietly abandoned them. The successive editions of his dictionary show still further concessions. Croud, fether, groop, gillotin, iland, insted, leperd, soe, sut, steddy, thret, thred, thum and wimmen appear only in the 1806 edition. In 1828 he went back to crowd, feather, group, island, instead, leopard, sew, soot, steady, thread, threat, thumb and women, and changed gillotin to guillotin. In addition, he restored the final e in determine, discipline, requisite, imagine, etc. In 1838, revising his dictionary, he abandoned a good many spellings that had appeared in either the 1806 or the 1828 edition, notably maiz for maize, [Pg252] suveran for sovereign and guillotin for guillotine. But he stuck manfully to a number that were quite as revolutionary—for example, aker for acre, cag for keg, grotesk for grotesque, hainous for heinous, porpess for porpoise and tung for tongue—and they did not begin to disappear until the edition of 1854, issued by other hands and eleven years after his death. Three of his favorites, chimist for chemist, neger for negro and zeber for zebra, are incidentally interesting as showing changes in American pronunciation. He abandoned zeber in 1828, but remained faithful to chimist and neger to the last.

But though he was thus forced to give occasional ground, and in more than one case held out in vain, Webster lived to see the majority of his reforms adopted by his countrymen. He left the ending in -or triumphant over the ending in -our, he shook the security of the ending in -re, he rid American spelling of a great many doubled consonants, he established the s in words of the defense group, and he gave currency to many characteristic American spellings, notably jail, wagon, plow, mold and ax. These spellings still survive, and are practically universal in the United States today; their use constitutes one of the most obvious differences between written English and written American. Moreover, they have founded a general tendency, the effects of which reach far beyond the field actually traversed by Webster himself. New words, and particularly loan-words, are simplified, and hence naturalized in American much more quickly than in English. Employé has long since become employee in our newspapers, and asphalte has lost its final e, and manoeuvre has become maneuver, and pyjamas has become pajamas. Even the terminology of science is simplified and Americanized. In medicine, for example, the highest American usage countenances many forms which would seem barbarisms to an English medical man if he encountered them in the Lancet. In derivatives of the Greek haima it is the almost invariable American custom to spell the root syllable hem, but the more conservative English make it haem—e. g., in haemorrhage and haemiplegia. In an exhaustive list of diseases issued by the United States Public Health [Pg253] Service[7] the haem-form does not appear once. In the same way American usage prefers esophagus, diarrhea and gonorrhea to the English oesophagus, diarrhoea and gonorrhoea. In the style-book of the Journal of the American Medical Association[8] I find many other spellings that would shock an English medical author, among them curet for curette, cocain for cocaine, gage for gauge, intern for interne, lacrimal for lachrymal, and a whole group of words ending in -er instead of in -re.

Webster's reforms, it goes without saying, have not passed unchallenged by the guardians of tradition. A glance at the literature of the first years of the nineteenth century shows that most of the serious authors of the time ignored his new spellings, though they were quickly adopted by the newspapers. Bancroft's "Life of Washington" contains -our endings in all such words as honor, ardor and favor. Washington Irving also threw his influence against the -or ending, and so did Bryant and most of the other literary big-wigs of that day. After the appearance of "An American Dictionary of the English Language," in 1828, a formal battle was joined, with Lyman Cobb and Joseph E. Worcester as the chief opponents of the reformer. Cobb and Worcester, in the end, accepted the -or ending and so surrendered on the main issue, but various other champions arose to carry on the war. Edward S. Gould, in a once famous essay,[9] denounced the whole Websterian orthography with the utmost fury, and Bryant, reprinting this philippic in the Evening Post, said that on account of Webster "the English language has been undergoing a process of corruption for the last quarter of a century," and offered to contribute to a fund to have Gould's denunciation "read twice a year in every school-house in the United States, until every trace of Websterian spelling disappears from the land." But Bryant was forced to admit that, even in 1856, the chief novelties of the Connecticut school-master "who taught millions to read but not one to sin" were [Pg254] "adopted and propagated by the largest publishing house, through the columns of the most widely circulated monthly magazine, and through one of the ablest and most widely circulated newspapers in the United States"—which is to say, the Tribune under Greeley. The last academic attack was delivered by Bishop Coxe in 1886, and he contented himself with the resigned statement that "Webster has corrupted our spelling sadly." Lounsbury, with his active interest in spelling reform, ranged himself on the side of Webster, and effectively disposed of the controversy by showing that the great majority of his spellings were supported by precedents quite as respectable as those behind the fashionable English spellings. In Lounsbury's opinion, a good deal of the opposition to them was no more than a symptom of antipathy to all things American among certain Englishmen and of subservience to all things English among certain Americans.[10]

Webster's inconsistency gave his opponents a formidable weapon for use against him—until it began to be noticed that the orthodox English spelling was quite as inconsistent. He sought to change acre to aker, but left lucre unchanged. He removed the final f from bailiff, mastiff, plaintiff and pontiff, but left it in distaff. He changed c to s in words of the offense class, but left the c in fence. He changed the ck in frolick, physick, etc., into a simple c, but restored it in such derivatives as frolicksome. He deleted the silent u in mould, but left it in court. These slips were made the most of by Cobb in a pamphlet printed in 1831.[11] He also detected Webster in the frequent faux pas of using spellings in his definitions and explanations that conflicted with the spellings he advocated. Various other purists joined in the attack, and it was renewed with great fury after the appearance of Worcester's dictionary, in 1846. Worcester, who had begun his lexicographical labors by editing Johnson's dictionary, was a good deal more conservative than Webster, and so the partisans of conformity rallied around him, and for [Pg255] a while the controversy took on all the rancor of a personal quarrel. Even the editions of Webster printed after his death, though they gave way on many points, were violently arraigned. Gould, in 1867, belabored the editions of 1854 and 1866,[12] and complained that "for the past twenty-five years the Websterian replies have uniformly been bitter in tone, and very free in the imputation of personal motives, or interested or improper motives, on the part of opposing critics." At this time Webster himself had been dead for twenty-two years. Schele de Vere, during the same year, denounced the publishers of the Webster dictionaries for applying "immense capital and a large stock of energy and perseverance" to the propagation of his "new and arbitrarily imposed orthography."[13]

§ 4

Exchanges—As in vocabulary and in idiom, there are constant exchanges between English and American in the department of orthography. Here the influence of English usage is almost uniformly toward conservatism, and that of American usage is as steadily in the other direction. The logical superiority of American spelling is well exhibited by its persistent advance in the face of the utmost hostility. The English objection to our simplifications, as Brander Matthews points out, is not wholly or even chiefly etymological; its roots lie, to borrow James Russell Lowell's phrase, in an esthetic hatred burning "with as fierce a flame as ever did theological hatred." There is something inordinately offensive to English purists in the very thought of taking lessons from this side of the water, particularly in the mother tongue. The opposition, transcending the academic, takes on the character of the patriotic. "Any American," continues Matthews, "who chances to note the force and the fervor and the frequency of the objurgations against American spelling in the columns of the Saturday Review, for example, and of the Athenaeum, may find himself wondering as to the date of the [Pg256] papal bull which declared the infallibility of contemporary British orthography, and as to the place where the council of the Church was held at which it was made an article of faith."[14] This was written more than a quarter of a century ago. Since then there has been a lessening of violence, but the opposition still continues. No self-respecting English author would yield up the -our ending for an instant, or write check for cheque, or transpose the last letters in the -re words.

Nevertheless, American spelling makes constant gains across the water, and they more than offset the occasional fashions for English spellings on this side. Schele de Vere, in 1867, consoled himself for Webster's "arbitrarily imposed orthography" by predicting that it could be "only temporary"—that, in the long run, "North America depends exclusively on the mother-country for its models of literature." But the event has blasted this prophecy and confidence, for the English, despite their furious reluctance, have succumbed to Webster more than once. The New English Dictionary, a monumental work, shows many silent concessions, and quite as many open yieldings—for example, in the case of ax, which is admitted to be "better than axe on every ground." Moreover, English usage tends to march ahead of it, outstripping the liberalism of its editor, Sir James A. H. Murray. In 1914, for example, Sir James was still protesting against dropping the first e from judgement, a characteristic Americanism, but during the same year the Fowlers, in their Concise Oxford Dictionary, put judgment ahead of judgement; and two years earlier the Authors' and Printers' Dictionary, edited by Horace Hart,[15] had dropped judgement altogether. Hart is Controller of the Oxford University Press, and the Authors' and Printers' Dictionary is an authority accepted by nearly all of the great English book publishers and newspapers. Its last edition shows a great many American spellings. For example, it recommends the use of jail and jailer in place [Pg257] of the English gaol and gaoler, says that ax is better than axe, drops the final e from asphalte and forme, changes the y to i in cyder, cypher and syren and advocates the same change in tyre, drops the redundant t from nett, changes burthen to burden, spells wagon with one g, prefers fuse to fuze, and takes the e out of storey. "Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford," also edited by Hart (with the advice of Sir James Murray and Dr. Henry Bradley), is another very influential English authority.[16] It gives its imprimatur to bark (a ship), cipher, siren, jail, story, tire and wagon, and even advocates kilogram and omelet. Finally, there is Cassell's English Dictionary.[17] It clings to the -our and -re endings and to annexe, waggon and cheque, but it prefers jail to gaol, net to nett, asphalt to asphalte and story to storey, and comes out flatly for judgment, fuse and siren.

Current English spelling, like our own, shows a number of uncertainties and inconsistencies, and some of them are undoubtedly the result of American influences that have not yet become fully effective. The lack of harmony in the -our words, leading to such discrepancies as honorary and honourable, I have already mentioned. The British Board of Trade, in attempting to fix the spelling of various scientific terms, has often come to grief. Thus it detaches the final -me from gramme in such compounds as kilogram and milligram, but insists upon gramme when the word stands alone. In American usage gram is now common, and scarcely challenged. All the English authorities that I have consulted prefer metre and calibre to the American meter and caliber.[18] They also support the ae in such words as aetiology, aesthetics, mediaeval and anaemia, and the oe in oesophagus, [Pg258] manoeuvre and diarrhoea. They also cling to such forms as mollusc, kerb, pyjamas and ostler, and to the use of x instead of ct in connexion and inflexion. The Authors' and Printers' Dictionary admits the American curb, but says that the English kerb is more common. It gives barque, plough and fount, but grants that bark, plow and font are good in America. As between inquiry and enquiry, it prefers the American inquiry to the English enquiry, but it rejects the American inclose and indorse in favor of the English enclose and endorse.[19] Here American spelling has driven in a salient, but has yet to take the whole position. A number of spellings, nearly all American, are trembling on the brink of acceptance in both countries. Among them is rime (for rhyme). This spelling was correct in England until about 1530, but its recent revival was of American origin. It is accepted by the Oxford Dictionary and by the editors of the Cambridge History of English Literature, but it seldom appears in an English journal. The same may be said of grewsome. It has got a footing in both countries, but the weight of English opinion is still against it. Develop (instead of develope) has gone further in both countries. So has engulf, for engulph. So has gipsy for gypsy.

American imitation of English orthography has two impulses behind it. First, there is the colonial spirit, the desire to pass as English—in brief, mere affectation. Secondly, there is the wish among printers, chiefly of books and periodicals, to reach a compromise spelling acceptable in both countries, thus avoiding expensive revisions in case of republication in England.[20] [Pg259] The first influence need not detain us. It is chiefly visible among folk of fashionable pretensions, and is not widespread. At Bar Harbor, in Maine, some of the summer residents are at great pains to put harbour instead of harbor on their stationery, but the local postmaster still continues to stamp all mail Bar Harbor, the legal name of the place. In the same way American haberdashers sometimes advertise pyjamas instead of pajamas, just as they advertise braces instead of suspenders and vests instead of undershirts. But this benign folly does not go very far. Beyond occasionally clinging to the -re ending in words of the theatre group, all American newspapers and magazines employ the native orthography, and it would be quite as startling to encounter honour or jewellery in one of them as it would be to encounter gaol or waggon. Even the most fashionable jewelers in Fifth avenue still deal in jewelry, not in jewellery.

The second influence is of more effect and importance. In the days before the copyright treaty between England and the United States, one of the standing arguments against it among the English was based upon the fear that it would flood England with books set up in America, and so work a corruption of English spelling.[21] This fear, as we have seen, had a certain plausibility; there is not the slightest doubt that American books and American magazines have done valiant missionary service for American orthography. But English conservatism still holds out stoutly enough to force American printers to certain compromises. When a book is designed for circulation in both countries it is common for the publisher to instruct the printer to employ "English spelling." This English spelling, at the Riverside Press,[22] embraces all the -our endings and the following further forms:












premises (in logic)


It will be noted that gaol, tyre, storey, kerb, asphalte, annexe, ostler, mollusc and pyjamas are not listed, nor are the words ending in -re. These and their like constitute the English contribution to the compromise. Two other great American book presses, that of the Macmillan Company[23] and that of the J. S. Cushing Company,[24] add gaol and storey to the list, and also behove, briar, drily, enquire, gaiety, gipsy, instal, judgement, lacquey, moustache, nought, pigmy, postillion, reflexion, shily, slily, staunch and verandah. Here they go too far, for, as we have seen, the English themselves have begun to abandon briar, enquire and judgement. Moreover, lacquey is going out over there, and gipsy is not English, but American. The Riverside Press, even in books intended only for America, prefers certain English forms, among them, anaemia, axe, mediaeval, mould, plough, programme and quartette, but in compensation it stands by such typical Americanisms as caliber, calk, center, cozy, defense, foregather, gray, hemorrhage, luster, maneuver, mustache, theater and woolen. The Government Printing Office at Washington follows Webster's New International Dictionary,[25] which supports most of the innovations of Webster himself. This dictionary is the authority in perhaps a majority of American printing offices, with the Standard and the Century supporting it. The latter two also follow Webster, notably in his -er [Pg261] endings and in his substitution of s for c in words of the defense class. The Worcester Dictionary is the sole exponent of English spelling in general circulation in the United States. It remains faithful to most of the -re endings, and to manoeuvre, gramme, plough, sceptic, woollen, axe and many other English forms. But even Worcester favors such characteristic American spellings as behoove, brier, caliber, checkered, dryly, jail and wagon.

§ 5

Simplified Spelling—The current movement toward a general reform of English-American spelling is of American origin, and its chief supporters are Americans today. Its actual father was Webster, for it was the long controversy over his simplified spellings that brought the dons of the American Philological Association to a serious investigation of the subject. In 1875 they appointed a committee to inquire into the possibility of reform, and in 1876 this committee reported favorably. During the same year there was an International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography at Philadelphia, with several delegates from England present, and out of it grew the Spelling Reform Association.[26] In 1878 a committee of American philologists began preparing a list of proposed new spellings, and two years later the Philological Society of England joined in the work. In 1883 a joint manifesto was issued, recommending various general simplifications. In 1886 the American Philological Association issued independently a list of recommendations affecting about 3,500 words, and falling under ten headings. Practically all of the changes proposed had been put forward 80 years before by Webster, and some of them had entered into unquestioned American usage in the meantime, e. g., the deletion of the u from the -our words, the substitution of [Pg262] er for re at the end of words, the reduction of traveller to traveler, and the substitution of z for s wherever phonetically demanded, as in advertize and cozy.

The trouble with the others was that they were either too uncouth to be adopted without a struggle or likely to cause errors in pronunciation. To the first class belonged tung for tongue, ruf for rough, batl for battle and abuv for above, and to the second such forms as cach for catch and troble for trouble. The result was that the whole reform received a set-back: the public dismissed the industrious professors as a pack of dreamers. Twelve years later the National Education Association revived the movement with a proposal that a beginning be made with a very short list of reformed spellings, and nominated the following by way of experiment: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog and decalog. This scheme of gradual changes was sound in principle, and in a short time at least two of the recommended spellings, program and catalog, were in general use. Then, in 1906, came the organization of the Simplified Spelling Board, with an endowment of $15,000 a year from Andrew Carnegie, and a formidable membership of pundits. The board at once issued a list of 300 revised spellings, new and old, and in August, 1906, President Roosevelt ordered their adoption by the Government Printing Office. But this unwise effort to hasten matters, combined with the buffoonery characteristically thrown about the matter by Roosevelt, served only to raise up enemies, and since then, though it has prudently gone back to more discreet endeavors and now lays main stress upon the original 12 words of the National Education Association, the Board has not made a great deal of progress.[27] From time to time it issues impressive lists of newspapers and periodicals that are using some, at least, of its revised spellings and of colleges that have made them optional, but an inspection of these lists shows that very few [Pg263] publications of any importance have been converted[28] and that most of the great universities still hesitate. It has, however, greatly reinforced the authority behind many of Webster's spellings, and it has done much to reform scientific orthography. Such forms as gram, cocain, chlorid, anemia and anilin are the products of its influence.

Despite the large admixture of failure in this success there is good reason to believe that at least two of the spellings on the National Education Association list, tho and thru, are making not a little quiet progress. I read a great many manuscripts by American authors, and find in them an increasing use of both forms, with the occasional addition of altho, thoro and thoroly. The spirit of American spelling is on their side. They promise to come in as honor, bark, check, wagon and story came in many years ago, as tire,[29] esophagus and theater came in later on, as program, catalog and cyclopedia came in only yesterday, and as airplane (for aëroplane)[30] is coming in today. A constant tendency toward logic and simplicity is visible; if the spelling of English and American does not grow farther and farther apart it is only because American drags English along. There is incessant experimentalization. New forms appear, are tested, and then either gain general acceptance or disappear. One such, now struggling for recognition, is alright, a compound of all and right, made by analogy with already and almost. I find it in American manuscripts every day, and it not infrequently gets into print.[31] So far no dictionary supports it, but [Pg264] it has already migrated to England.[32] Meanwhile, one often encounters, in American advertising matter, such experimental forms as burlesk, foto, fonograph, kandy, kar, holsum, kumfort and Q-room, not to mention sulfur. Segar has been more or less in use for half a century, and at one time it threatened to displace cigar. At least one American professor of English predicts that such forms will eventually prevail. Even fosfate and fotograph, he says, "are bound to be the spellings of the future."[33]

§ 6

Minor Differences—Various minor differences remain to be noticed. One is a divergence in orthography due to differences in pronunciation. Specialty, aluminum and alarm offer examples. In English they are speciality, aluminium and alarum, though alarm is also an alternative form. Specialty, in America, is always accented on the first syllable; speciality, in England, on the third. The result is two distinct words, though their meaning is identical. How aluminium, in America, lost its fourth syllable I have been unable to determine, but all American authorities now make it aluminum and all English authorities stick to aluminium.

Another difference in usage is revealed in the spelling and pluralization of foreign words. Such words, when they appear in an English publication, even a newspaper, almost invariably bear the correct accents, but in the United States it is almost as invariably the rule to omit these accents, save in publications of considerable pretensions. This is notably the case with café crêpe, début, débutante, portière, levée, éclat, fête, régime, rôle, soirée, protégé, élite, mêlée, tête-à-tête and répertoire. It is rare to encounter any of them with its proper accents in an American newspaper; it is rare to encounter them unaccented in an English [Pg265] newspaper. This slaughter of the accents, it must be obvious, greatly aids the rapid naturalization of a newcomer. It loses much of its foreignness at once, and is thus easier to absorb. Dépôt would have been a long time working its way into American had it remained dépôt, but immediately it became plain depot it got in. The process is constantly going on. I often encounter naïveté without its accents, and even déshabille, hofbräu, señor and résumé. Cañon was changed to canyon years ago, and the cases of exposé, divorcée, schmierkäse, employé and matinée are familiar. At least one American dignitary of learning, Brander Matthews, has openly defended and even advocated this clipping of accents. In speaking of naïf and naïveté, which he welcomes because "we have no exact equivalent for either word," he says: "But they will need to shed their accents and to adapt themselves somehow to the traditions of our orthography."[34] He goes on: "After we have decided that the foreign word we find knocking at the doors of English [he really means American, as the context shows] is likely to be useful, we must fit it for naturalization by insisting that it shall shed its accents, if it has any; that it shall change its spelling, if this is necessary; that it shall modify its pronunciation, if this is not easy for us to compass; and that it shall conform to all our speech-habits, especially in the formation of the plural."[35]

In this formation of the plural, as elsewhere, English regards the precedents and American makes new ones. All the English authorities that I have had access to advocate retaining the foreign plurals of most of the foreign words in daily use, e. g., sanatoria, appendices, virtuosi, formulae and libretti. But American usage favors plurals of native cut, and the Journal of the American Medical Association goes so far as to approve curriculums and septums. Banditti, in place of bandits, would seem an affectation in America, and so would soprani for sopranos [Pg266] and soli for solos.[36] The last two are common in England. Both English and American labor under the lack of native plurals for the two everyday titles, Mister and Missus. In the written speech, and in the more exact forms of the spoken speech, the French plurals, Messieurs and Mesdames, are used, but in the ordinary spoken speech, at least in America, they are avoided by circumlocution. When Messieurs has to be spoken it is almost invariably pronounced messers, and in the same way Mesdames becomes mez-dames, with the first syllable rhyming with sez and the second, which bears the accent, with games. In place of Mesdames a more natural form, Madames, seems to be gaining ground in America. Thus, I lately found Dames du Sacré Coeur translated as Madames of the Sacred Heart in a Catholic paper of wide circulation,[37] and the form is apparently used by American members of the community.

In capitalization the English are a good deal more conservative than we are. They invariably capitalize such terms as Government, Prime Minister and Society, when used as proper nouns; they capitalize Press, Pulpit, Bar, etc., almost as often. In America a movement against this use of capitals appeared during the latter part of the eighteenth century. In Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence nature and creator, and even god are in lower case.[38] During the 20's and 30's of the succeeding century, probably as a result of French influence, the disdain of capitals went so far that the days of the week were often spelled with small initial letters, and even Mr. became mr. Curiously enough, the most striking exhibition of this tendency of late years is offered by an English work of the highest scholarship, the Cambridge History of English Literature. It uses the lower case for all titles, even baron and colonel before proper names, and also avoids capitals in such [Pg267] words as presbyterian, catholic and christian, and in the second parts of such terms as Westminster abbey and Atlantic ocean.

Finally, there are certain differences in punctuation. The English, as everyone knows, put a comma after the street number of a house, making it, for example, 34, St. James street. They usually insert a comma instead of a period after the hour when giving the time in figures, e. g., 9,27, and omit the 0 when indicating less than 10 minutes, e. g., 8,7 instead of 8.07. They do not use the period as the mark of the decimal, but employ a dot at the level of the upper dot of a colon, as in 3·1416. They cling to the hyphen in such words as to-day and to-night; it begins to disappear in America. They use an before hotel and historical; Kipling has even used it before hydraulic;[39] American usage prefers a. But these small differences need not be pursued further.

Return to the The American Language Summary Return to the H.L. Mencken Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson