The American Language/Chapter 31

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145644The American Language — The Two OrthographiesH. L. Mencken

The chief changes made in the standard English spelling in the United States may be classified as follows:

1. The omission of the penultimate u in words ending in -our:

 American English
 arbor arbour
 armor armour
 behavior behaviour
 candor candour
 clamor clamour
 clangor clangour
 color colour
 demeanor demeanour
 endeavor endeavour
 favor favour
 fervor fervour
 flavor flavour
 glamor glamour
 harbor harbour
 honor honour
 humor humour
 labor labour
 neighbor neighbour
 odor odour
 parlor parlour
 rancor rancour
 rigor rigour
 rumor rumour
 savor savour
 splendor splendour
 succor succour
 tumor tumour
 valor valour
 vapor vapour
 vigor vigour

2. The reduction of duplicate consonants to single consonants:

 American English
 councilor councillor
 counselor counsellor
 fagot faggot
 jewelry jewellery
 net (adj.) nett
 traveler traveller
 wagon waggon
 woolen woollen

3. The omission of a redundant e:

 annex (noun) annexe
 asphalt asphalte
 ax axe
 form (printer’s) forme
 good-by goodbye
 intern (noun) interne
 peas (plu. of pea) pease
 story (of a house) storey

4. The change of terminal -re into -er:

 caliber calibre
 center centre
 fiber fibre
 liter litre
 meter metre
 saltpeter saltpetre
 theater theatre

5. The omission of unaccented foreign terminations:

 catalog catalogue
 envelop[1] envelope
 epaulet epaulette
 gram gramme
 program programme
 prolog prologue
 toilet toilette
 veranda verandah

6. The omission of u when combined with a or o:

 balk (verb) baulk
 font (printer’s) fount
 gantlet (to run the—) gauntlet
 mold mould
 molt moult
 mustache moustache
 stanch staunch

7. The conversion of decayed diphthongs into simple vowels:

 American English
 anemia anæmia
 anesthetic anæsthetic
 encyclopedia encyclopædia
 diarrhea diarrhœa
 ecology œcology
 ecumenical œcumenical
 edema œdema
 eon æon
 esophagus œsophagus
 esthetic æsthetic
 estival æstival
 etiology ætiology
 hemorrhage hæmorrhage
 medieval mediæval
 septicemia septicæmia

8. The change of compound consonants into simple consonants:

 bark (ship) barque
 burden (ship’s) burthen
 check (bank) cheque
 draft (ship’s) draught
 picket (military) piquet
 plow plough
 vial phial

9. The change of o into a:

 naught nought
 pudgy podgy
 slug (verb) slog
 slush slosh
 taffy toffy (or toffee)

10. The change of e into i:

 inclose enclose
 indorse endorse
 inquire enquire
 jimmy (burglar’s) jemmy
 scimitar scimetar

11. The change of y into a, ia or i:

 ataxia ataxy
 baritone barytone
 cachexia cachexy
 cider cyder
 pajamas pyjamas
 siphon syphon
 siren syren
 tire (noun) tyre

12. The change of c into s:

 American English
 defense defence
 offense offence
 pretense pretence
 vise (a tool) vice

13. The substitution of s for z:

 advertisement advertizement
 fuse fuze

14. The substitution of k for c:

 mollusk mollusc
 skeptic sceptic

15. The insertion of a supernumerary e:

 forego forgo
 foregather forgather

16. The substitution of ct for x:

 connection connexion
 inflection inflexion

17. The substitution of y for i:

 dryly drily
 gayety gaiety
 gypsy gipsy
 pygmy pigmy

18. Miscellaneous differences:

 alarm (signal) alarum
 behoove behove
 brier briar
 buncombe bunkum
 catsup ketchup
 cloture closure
 cozy cosy
 cutlas cutlass
 czar tsar
 gasoline gasolene
 gray grey
 hostler ostler
 jail gaol
 maneuver manœuvre
 pedler pedlar
 show (verb) shew
 snicker snigger
 stenosis stegnosis

This list might be very much extended by including compounds and derivatives, e. g., coloured, colourist, colourless, colour-blind, colour-line, colour-sergeant, colourable, colourably, neighbourhood, neighbourly, neighbourliness, favourite, favourable, slogger, kilogramme, kilometre, amphitheatre, centremost, baulky, anæsthesia, plough-boy, dreadnought, enclosure, endorsement, and by including forms that are going out of use in England, e. g., fluxation [2] for fluctuation, surprize for surprise, and forms that are still but half established in the United States, e. g., chlorid, brusk, cigaret, lacrimal, rime, gage, quartet, eolian, dialog, lodgment, niter, sulfite, phenix. According to a recent writer upon the subject, “there are 812 words in which the prevailing American spelling differs from the English.” [3] But enough examples are given here 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, simple vowels have been substituted for degenerated diphthongs, simple consonants have displaced compound ones, and vowels have been changed to bring words into harmony with their analogues, as in tire, cider and baritone (cf. wire, rider, merriment). Clarity and simplicity are 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 by Americans who find it in print, 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, slosh becomes slush, toffee 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. [4] Cozy is more nearly phonetic than cosy. Curb has analogues in curtain, curdle, curfew, curl, currant, curry, curve, curtsey, curse, currency, cursory, curtain, 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. Such forms as monolog and dialog still offend the fastidious, but their merit is not to be gainsaid. Nor would it be easy to argue logically against gram, toilet, mustache, anesthetic, draft and tire.

But a number of anomalies remain. The American substitution of a for e in gray is not easily explained, nor is the retention of e in forego, nor the unphonetic substitution of s for z in fuse, nor the persistence of the y in gypsy and pygmy, nor the occasional survival of a foreign form, as in cloture. [5] 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. They have to write offensive and defensive, despite their fidelity to the c in offence and defence. They have begun to drop the duplicate consonant from riveter, leveled and biased, despite their use of traveller and jewellery. [6] They cling to programme, but never think of using diagramme or telegramme. Worst of all, they are wholly inconsistent in their use of the -our ending, the chief hallmark of orthodox English orthography. In American the u appears only in Saviour and then only when the word is used in the biblical sense. In England it is used in most words of that class, but omitted from a very respectable minority, e. g., horror, torpor, ambassador. It is commonly argued in defense of it over there that it serves to distinguish French loan-words from words derived directly from the Latin, but Tucker shows [7] that this argument is quite nonsensical, even assuming that the distinction has any practical utility. Ambassador, ancestor, bachelor, editor, emperor, error, exterior, governor, inferior, metaphor, mirror, progenitor, senator, superior, successor and torpor all came into English from the French, and yet British usage sanctions spelling them without the u. On the other hand it is used in arbour, behaviour, clangour, flavour and neighbour, “which are not French at all.” Tucker goes on:

Even in ardour, armour, candour, endeavour, favour, honour, labour, odour, parlour, rigour, rumour, saviour, splendour, tumour and vapour, where the u has some color of right to appear, it is doubtful whether its insertion has much value as suggesting French derivation, for in the case of twelve of these words the ordinary reader would be quite certain to have in mind only the modern spelling—ardeur, armure, candeur, faveur, honneur, labeur, odeur, rigneur, rumeur, splendeur, tumeur and vapeur—which have the u indeed but no o (and why should not one of these letters be dropped as well as the other?)—while endeavour, parlour and saviour come from old French words that are themselves without the u—devoir, parleor and saveor. The u in all these words is therefore either useless or positively misleading. And finally in the case of colour, clamour, fervour, humour, rancour, valour and vigour, it is to be remarked that the exact American orthography actually occurs in old French! “Finally,” I said, but that is not quite the end of British absurdity with these -our -or words. Insistent as our transatlantic cousins are on writing arbour, armour, clamour, clangour, colour, dolour, flavour, honour, humour, labour, odour, rancour, rigour, savour, valour, vapour and vigour, and “most unpleasant” as they find the omission of the excrescent u in any of these words, they nevertheless make no scruple of writing the derivatives in the American way—arboreal, armory, clamorous, clangorous, colorific, dolorous, flavorous, honorary, humorous, laborious, odorous, rancorous, rigorous, savory, valorous, vaporize and vigorous—not inserting the u in the second syllable of any one of these words. The British practice is, in short and to speak plainly, a jumble of confusion, without rhyme or reason, logic or consistency; and if anybody finds the American simplification of the whole matter “unpleasant,” it can be only because he is a victim of unreasoning prejudice against which no argument can avail.

If the u were dropped in all derivatives, the confusion would be less, but it is retained in many of them, for example, colourable, favourite, misdemeanour, coloured and labourer. The derivatives of honour exhibit clearly the difficulties of the American who essays to write correct English. 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.


  1. The English dictionaries make a distinction between the verb, to envelop, and the noun, envelope. This distinction seems to be disappearing in the United States.
  2. I find “fluxation of the rate of exchange” in the New Witness, Feb. 4, 1921. Cassell marks it obsolete; the Concise Oxford gives only fluctuation.
  3. Richard P. Read: The American Language, New York Sun. March 7, 1918.
  4. To shew has completely disappeared from American, but it still survives in English usage. Cf. The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, by George Bernard Shaw. The word, of course, is pronounced show, not shoe. Shrew, a cognate word, still retains the early pronunciation of shrow on the English stage, though not in common usage. It is now phonetic in American.
  5. Fowler and Fowler, in The King’s English, p. 23, say that “when it was proposed to borrow from France what we [i. e., the English] now know as the closure, it seemed certain for some time that with the thing we should borrow the name, clôture; a press campaign resulted in closure.” But in the Congressional Record it is still cloture, though with the loss of the circumflex accent, and this form is generally retained by American newspapers.
  6. See the preface to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, p. vi.
  7. American English; New York, 1921, p. 37.