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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

VIII. American Spelling

4. British Spelling in the United States

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, to reach a compromise spelling acceptable in both countries, thus avoiding expensive revisions in case sheets are printed for publication in England. 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 post-master 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 boots instead of shoes. 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 traveller 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. 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, embraces all the -our endings and the following further forms:

faggotpremiss (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 and that of the J. S. Cushing Company, add gaol and storey to the list, and also behove, briar, drily, enquire, gaiety, gipsy, instal, judgement, lacquey, moustache, nought, pygmy, postillion, reflexion, shily, slily, staunch and verandah. Here they go too far, for, as we have seen, the English themselves have begun to abandon enquire and judgement, and lacquey is also going out over there. The Riverside Press, even in books intended only for America, prefers certain English forms, among them, anæmia, axe, mediæval, 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, which supports many 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 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 manæuvre, 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. The Atlantic Monthly, which is inclined to be stiff and British, follows Webster, but with certain reservations. Thus it uses the -re ending in words of the center class, retains the u in mould, moult and moustache, retains the redundant terminal letters in such words as gramme, programme and quartette, retains the final e in axe and adze, and clings to the double vowels in such words as mediæval, anæsthesia, homœopathy, and diarrhæa. In addition, it uses the English plough, whiskey, clue and gruesome, differentiates between the noun practice and the verb to practise, and makes separate words of to ensure, to make certain, and to insure, to protect or indemnify. It also prefers entrust to intrust. It follows the somewhat arbitrary rule laid down by Webster for the doubling of consonants in derivatives bearing such suffixes as -ed, -ing, -er, and -ous. This rule is that words ending in l, p, r and t, when this last letter is preceded by a vowel, double the consonant before such suffixes, but only if the words are monosyllables or polysyllables accented on the last syllable. Thus dispelled has two l’s but traveled has one, equipped has two p’s but worshiper one, occurred has two r’s but altered one, and petted has two t’s but trumpeter one.

There remains a twilight zone in which usage is still uncertain in both England and America. The words in it are chiefly neologisms, e. g., airplane. In 1914 or thereabout the London Times announced that it had decided to use airplane in place of aëroplane, but three weeks later it went back to the original form. The Concise Oxford sticks to aeroplane (without the dieresis) and so does Cassell’s, though it lists airplane among war terms. The majority of English newspapers follow these authorities, but in the United States airplane is in steadily increasing use. Some confusion is caused by the fact that the French, who originated practically all of our aeronautical terms, use aeroplane, but omit the final e from biplan, monoplan, etc. A correspondent calls my attention to the fact that the two terminations are not the same etymologically. The plan of biplan is a word meaning “a plane, a plane surface”; while the plane of aeroplane is a formation taken from the verb planer, to soar, to glide. Hence aeroplane means “ce qui plane dans l’air,” while biplan means “ce qui a deux plans.” In the United States the current forms are biplane and monoplane.

In Canada the two orthographies, English and American, flourish side by side. By an Order-in-Council of 1890, all official correspondence must show the English spelling, but practically all of the newspapers use the American spelling and it is also taught in most of the public schools, which are under the jurisdiction, not of the Dominion government, but of the provincial ministers of education. In Australia the English spelling is official, but various American forms are making fast progress. According to the Triad, the leading Australian magazine, “horrible American inaccuracies of spelling are coming into common use” in the newspapers out there; worse, the educational authorities of Victoria authorize the use of the American -er ending. This last infamy has been roundly denounced by Sir Adrian Knox, Chief Justice of the Commonwealth, and the Triad displays a good deal of colonial passion in supporting him. “Unhappily,” it says, “we have no English Academy to guard the purity and integrity of the language. Everything is left to the sense and loyalty of decently cultivated people.” But even the Triad admits that American usage, in some instances, is “correct.” It is, however, belligerently faithful to the -our-ending. “If it is correct or tolerable in English,” it argues somewhat lamely, “to write labor for labour, why not boddy for body, steddy for steady, and yot for yacht?” Meanwhile, as in Canada, the daily papers slide into the Yankee orbit.