UK versus American spelling; you need to be organised…or is it organized….

16.03.2015
English UK versus American spelling

There are many words which have different spellings depending on whether they are UK or American English and sometimes it’s down to the job of a translator to ensure that usage is correct in documents. Popular ones include:

  • Colour/color
  • Flavour/flavor
  • Organise/Organize
  • Theatre/theater

The question is though; where did it all begin – and why?

The origins of spelling for UK and American English

Whilst many believe that all words originated in Britain and were changed when they came into use in America, this is incorrect.

Before the standardisation of spelling, some words which are now seen as the American spelling of a word were first used in Britain and visa versa, some words now accepted as the norm in UK English originated in the USA.

The introduction of dictionaries

It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that the spelling of certain words were seen to be either the British or American version. This came about with the printing of a number of dictionaries which were deemed to be influential pieces of work and these laid down how a word should be spelled in either the UK or America. The dictionaries with the greatest effect on the English language at the time were ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’ by Noah Webster and ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ by Samuel Johnson.

Webster as a major influence

The words Noah Webster chose were ones he felt were useful due to simplicity of spelling, analogy or etymology. Some were taken from common UK usage of the time but his dictionary set out the ground rules as to how citizens of the States should be spelling words. This was the major point of the divide of which word would be attributed to which country.

English may have been introduced into America through colonisation, but the subject as to the linguistic origins of words is not so simplistic as this. With Latin and French being two major contributory factors to the history of the spelling of different words, the reasons there are different spellings for a number of word groupings are fascinating and a great subject to study in great detail for those interested in linguistics and translation.