H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Chapter 8. American Spelling > 1. The Two Orthographies
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

VIII.   American Spelling
 
 
1. The Two Orthographies
 
The chief changes made in the standard English spelling in the United States may be classified as follows:   1
  1. The omission of the penultimate u in words ending in -our:
AmericanEnglish
arborarbour
armorarmour
behaviorbehaviour
candorcandour
clamorclamour
clangorclangour
colorcolour
demeanordemeanour
endeavorendeavour
favorfavour
fervorfervour
flavorflavour
glamorglamour
harborharbour
honorhonour
humorhumour
laborlabour
neighborneighbour
odorodour
parlorparlour
rancorrancour
rigorrigour
rumorrumour
savorsavour
splendorsplendour
succorsuccour
tumortumour
valorvalour
vaporvapour
vigorvigour
 
   2
  2. The reduction of duplicate consonants to single consonants:
American English
councilorcouncillor
counselorcounsellor
fagotfaggot
jewelryjewellery
net (adj.)nett
travelertraveller
wagonwaggon
woolenwoollen
 
   3
  3. The omission of a redundant e:
annex (noun)annexe
asphaltasphalte
axaxe
form (printer’s)forme
good-bygoodbye
intern (noun)interne
peas (plu. of pea)pease
story (of a house)storey
 
   4
  4. The change of terminal -re into -er:
calibercalibre
centercentre
fiberfibre
literlitre
metermetre
saltpetersaltpetre
theatertheatre
 
   5
  5. The omission of unaccented foreign terminations:
catalogcatalogue
envelop 1envelope
epauletepaulette
gramgramme
programprogramme
prologprologue
toilettoilette
verandaverandah
 
   6
  6. The omission of u when combined with a or o:
balk (verb)baulk
font (printer’s)fount
gantlet (to run the—)gauntlet
moldmould
moltmoult
mustachemoustache
stanchstaunch
 
   7
  7. The conversion of decayed diphthongs into simple vowels:
AmericanEnglish
anemiaanæmia
anestheticanæsthetic
encyclopediaencyclopædia
diarrheadiarrhœa
ecologyœcology
ecumenicalœcumenical
edemaœdema
eonæon
esophagusœsophagus
estheticæsthetic
estivalæstival
etiologyætiology
hemorrhagehæmorrhage
medievalmediæval
septicemiasepticæmia
 
   8
  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
plowplough
vialphial
 
   9
  9. The change of o into a:
naughtnought
pudgypodgy
slug (verb)slog
slushslosh
taffytoffy (or toffee)
 
   10
  10. The change of e into i:
incloseenclose
indorseendorse
inquireenquire
jimmy (burglar’s)jemmy
scimitarscimetar
 
   11
  11. The change of y into a, ia or i:
ataxiaataxy
baritonebarytone
cachexiacachexy
cidercyder
pajamaspyjamas
siphonsyphon
sirensyren
tire (noun)tyre
 
   12
  12. The change of c into s:
AmericanEnglish
defensedefence
offenseoffence
pretensepretence
vise (a tool)vice
 
   13
  13. The substitution of s for z:
advertisementadvertizement
fusefuze
 
   14
  14. The substitution of k for c:
molluskmollusc
skepticsceptic
 
   15
  15. The insertion of a supernumerary e:
foregoforgo
foregatherforgather
 
   16
  16. The substitution of ct for x:
connectionconnexion
inflectioninflexion
 
   17
  17. The substitution of y for i:
drylydrily
gayetygaiety
gypsygipsy
pygmypigmy
 
   18
  18. Miscellaneous differences:
alarm (signal)alarum
behoovebehove
brierbriar
buncombebunkum
catsupketchup
clotureclosure
cozycosy
cutlascutlass
czartsar
gasolinegasolene
graygrey
hostlerostler
jailgaol
maneuvermanœuvre
pedlerpedlar
show (verb)shew
snickersnigger
stenosisstegnosis
 
   19
  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.   20
  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.
 
   21
  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.   22
Note 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. [back]
Note 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. [back]
Note 3.  Richard P. Read: The American Language, New York Sun. March 7, 1918. [back]
Note 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. [back]
Note 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. [back]
Note 6.  See the preface to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, p. vi. [back]
Note 7.  American English; New York, 1921, p. 37. [back]

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