An American Speller in Great Britain

london guardAs some of you know, I recently returned from a vacation “across the pond”, with London being my first stop. As someone who has never really been out of the country, I soaked up the atmosphere and culture as much as I could in my four days there. As a writer, I found myself paying great attention to signs and advertisements. After hearing and seeing certain “British” words on TV and in movies, it was fun to see the word “lift” over the elevator, and even consult Google when we couldn’t decipher the sign “no busking” which was posted in an underpass. (It means no street performing!)

Back home, I have often found myself reading blogs on content marketing originating from the UK but only realized it when I hit one of their famous telltale spellings—for example, authorise, instead of authorize or flavour instead of flavor. In honor of my visit, I decided to look into the origin of this difference between American and British spellings.  Here’s what I found.

Basically, spelling was never standardized across all the various English-speaking countries! In the 19th century, two distinct versions of English spelling appeared: British English and American English, and which is correct will depend on where you are.

Today, British English is used in part of Great Britain, as well as in most Commonwealth countries such as Canada. Each nation has a few variations within the language, with a few American spellings incorporated into the standard of the country.

The real difference, though, lies in the origins of the words. British English tends to keep the spelling from the language that the root word is borrowed from (such as Old French or Latin), while American English spells words more phonetically. Just like us Americans to make things easier, right?

Here’s how “we” remix the British version of our words:

  • Words ending in -re became -er: Centre is closer to the original Old French, or Latin word, centrum. We Americans prefer center.
  • Words ending in -our became -or: Words like colour or favourite are also derived from the Old French word of the same spelling. Again, we prefer color.
  • Words ending in -ence became -ense (defence versus defense).  Words like defence are derived from Middle English and Latin.
  • Words ending in –ise became –ize: Words like apologise are also derived from Latin and Greek.

Part of the joy of travel is experiencing the differences between your home and the place you are and for me, that included a study of words I saw. Go ahead and confess…do you have a fondness for any British-spelled words? Do you think we Americans should revert to any British spellings? Leave me a comment and let me know!