Color Catalog Center… Does This Spelling Drive You Crazy?

Labour-labor, theatre-theater, jewellery, jewelry… If you find the inconsistencies in spelling between American and Anglo-English irritating, let me tell you, it could have been much, MUCH worse!

My awareness of British vs American spellings began way back in Grade One. I was just learning to read and brought a picture book home from school that featured two adorable kittens and cans of paint. The word “color” in it surprised me, because I was pretty sure that wasn’t how you spelled that word. Then someone (parent? teacher?) told me that both spellings were correct. Wait… WHAT? Mind blown.

This may have been the offending book – it’s the right vintage at least.

In grade four – and this is a far more painful memory – I suffered the injustice of being marked WRONG on a spelling test for writing labour with a “u”. In a Canadian school! (Forty-some years later I’m still reeling from that one!)

I only bring it up because I’ve been reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie and came across this nugget… When he retired in 1901, selling his steel interests to J.P. Morgan for 480 million dollars, Carnegie was generally regarded to be the world’s richest man. And as he believed it was bad form to end one’s life sitting on piles of money, he immediately set about giving away his millions. Besides building libraries, he took on many causes, from the grand (world peace) to the less grand (spelling reform). In 1906 he founded the Simplified Spelling Board (also referred to as the American Spelling Board in some sources), and a list of proposed changes was made.

Noah Webster

The Americanization of spelling actually began much earlier, with Noah Webster’s dictionaries, editions of which appeared from 1806 to 1841 featuring many of the spelling changes still in use today: centre to center, colour to color, defence to defense, among others.

There was resistance, and while some of his suggestions took hold, others fell by the wayside. The spelling shift was both gradual and chaotic, and acceptance or rejection followed different trajectories for each individual word. In the 1870s various committees advocated further changes in an effort to drop silent letters, some double letters, and even the e at the end of words when it wasn’t indicating a long vowel. Here is one list of spelling revisions from 1870:

are – ar
give – giv
have – hav
live – liv
though – tho
through – thru
guard – gard
catalogue – catalog
definite – definit
wished – wisht

Another list from the American National Education Association in 1898 also included:

throughout – thruout
demagogue – demagog
prologue – prolog
programme – program

Andrew Carnegie rites a leter.

In 1906 Andrew Carnegie joined in the fun. He was convinced that if the language could be made more phonetic, like Spanish or Italian, it could become the language of default for the entire world. (The term for a default language is lingua franca. Irony noted.) Carnegie’s Simplified Spelling Board put together a list of 300 words to be changed.

Here is a chart from a 1920 Simplified Spelling Board publication which lists the general rules behind the proposed changes, courtesy of Wikipedia. A few highlights: head – hed, doll – dol, cigarette – cigaret, bureau – buro, tongue – tung, ghost – gost, laugh – laf, and school – scool! (The full Handbook of Simplified Spelling has been archived here by the Internet Archive, and makes for some fascinating reading.)

Many prominent names backed this initiative, including authors, professors, publishers, and dictionary editors. Even Mark Twain was on the board, although he admitted that the scheme:

“… won’t make any hedway. I am sory as a dog. For I do lov revolutions and violens.” 1

They received surprise support from none other than President Theodore Roosevelt, who attempted to enforce the new spellings in all government documents. This effort only lasted a few months, as Congress voted to go back to the old spellings. Teddy himself backed down from the fight, claiming to be particularly bothered by the use of “thru”. He took a fair amount of roasting from the press over his brief flirtation with spelling reform. Once while attending a naval review a press boat roared past him emblazoned with the words “PRES BOT”, at which he roared with laughter. 2

Roosevelt takes aim at the dictionary with ammunition provided by “A. Carnege”.

To the end of his life Carnegie persisted in using the ‘improved spelling’ in his own writing, despite the Simplified Spelling Board’s lack of progress. He expressed his disappointment to the board in 1915, writing “…I hav been patient long enuf…”3.

Committees and boards may seek to dictate spelling practice, but in the end the public does just as it wishes with language, both then and now. Only very few of the board’s hundreds of suggestions have survived, the most useful of which may be dropping the use of digraphs “æ”  and “œ”, which seems reasonable: anæmia becomes anemia, and in amœba the digraph splits like a one-celled organism to form amoeba.(An attempt was made to push amoeba into ameba, but the plucky little blob resisted.)

As I delve deeper into this whole mess I’m a little surprised to find my adherence to British spellings is not as consistent as I’d thought. I use hiccup over hiccough, and mold over mould, I don’t use digraphs (because I can’t find them on my keyboard), and I simply will not put that extra “i” into aluminum. I’m thinking it might be worthwhile to just chill a little about spelling irregularities, though I still think I should have gotten a checkmark for labour in grade four.

Izn’t langwaj fasinating?


P.S. word nerds! For interesting charts on individual word usage over time, try playing with the Google Ngram viewer. For relevant examples scroll down into this: Among other things, these ngrams suggest there was a weird moment during the 1920s when Americans and Brits alike decided to use connexion over connection, but cooler heads eventually prevailed…


1 Krass, Peter. Carnegie (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York: 2002), p 450.

2 Handbook of Simplified Spelling. Simplified Spelling Board, 1920, as excerpted on Wikipedia: , accessed January 29, 2018.

3 Op. cit., Krass, p 506.


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