British and American English did not always have different spellings. Before 1828, spelling was not standardised in either country and there was no debate regarding American versus British spelling. Both sides of the Atlantic alternated between two different spellings for many words, such as ‘humour’ (‘humor’), ‘defence’ (‘defense’) and ‘centre’ (‘center’). The reason for this was because the terms were introduced into English through Latin and then French, which had differing spellings. In William Shakespeare’s first works, for example, you can find the words ‘color’ and ‘center’ just as regularly as ‘colour’ and ‘centre’.1
American versus British spelling: the origins
The distinctions in American versus British spelling didn’t occur naturally. They are the result of man-made choices and the publication of prominent dictionaries that established standard spellings. British English spelling was influenced by Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which came out in 1755. As a result, a ‘British standard’ started to develop. The ‘American standard’ is attributed to Noah Webster and his work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which appeared in 1828. However, Webster was more influential in America than Johnson was across the pond.2
It is important to note that Webster didn’t invent American spelling; he merely propagated it. John Algeo pointed out that Noah Webster “chose already existing options such as center, color and check on such grounds as simplicity, analogy or etymology”.3 Part of his motivation was nationalism: he wanted American orthography to differ from British orthography and, according to him, be superior. In short, Webster chose the spellings he preferred and popularized them.
A number of Webster’s choices were appropriated in England, such as dropping the ‘k’ on words such as ‘musick’ and ‘publick’. However, most of his changes were shunned in Britain, despite that they had been used there originally. After the words became standard practice in the United States, the British came to see them as Americanisms and slowly eradicated them from their own usage.
American versus British: a misconception
It may come as a surprise, but -ize is not actually incorrect in British English. It is mistakenly regarded to be an Americanism, but is actually right. The Oxford English Dictionary cites -ize as correct, and -ise as another option. The -ise ending was shaped by French (compare ‘realization’ to the French ‘réalisation’), however the suffix originates in the Latin -izāre, which means that the use of ‘z’ is etymologically and phonetically correct.4 The preference for the -ise ending may be because French, once the language spoken by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, was seen as posh. Interestingly, in its style guide, Oxford University itself advocates to use -ise.5
- Venezky, Richard. The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography. Guilford Press, 1999. p. 26
- Scragg, Donald (1974). A history of English spelling. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. pp. 82–83.
- Algeo, John, “The Effects of the Revolution on Language” in A Companion to the American Revolution, John Wiley & Sons: 2008, p. 599.
- Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
- University of Oxford Style Guide: Word usage and spelling