etymology, origin

PPFF #137: Theater Centre

Good morning,

If you have a keen eye for detail, you may have noticed the inconsistency in spelling in the title; ‘theater’ being (North) American and ‘centre’ being British. This morning’s topic has nothing to do with the space for thespian endeavours nor the equidistant point of regular geometries, but all to do with the reason why we spell these in different ways. I say ‘the’, emphatically because unlike many origin stories of sayings, idioms and colloquialisms or etymologies of words we come across, (often inconclusive and ambiguous), the reason for the “two countries separated by a common language” almost points to one unequivocally distinct juncture; Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary.

In 1806 by compiling and publishing “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, (somewhat politically motivated) Noah Webster brought about a significant spelling reform which included the most distinguishable features of the common American English spelling patterns (e.g. theatre/theater, sceptical/skeptical neighbor/neighbour etc.). It’s not that he came up with any of these spellings himself but that it was an attempt, successful one at that, to break away from the traditions of America’s old colonial ‘master’, i.e. the British. I was surprised to learn but it’s probably also worth mentioning that the spelling patterns we know in Britain aren’t as ‘authentic’ as we think. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Loves Labours Lost’ was actually first printed as ‘Loves Labors Lost’, not ‘Loves Labours Lost’ (1598) but through superficial gallicising (not to be confused with gaelicising) efforts borne of ostentatious affectation to appear more French, by 1623 ‘Loves Labors Lost’ would be printed as ‘Loves Labours Lost’.  (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning although such words had made into the English vocabulary from French in the first place, by 16th century spellings of many words had already been economised and phoneticised from their original forms). I guess all things French were fashionable even then.

A slightly digressing but nonetheless interesting example of these differences in spelling is ‘aluminium’ or ‘aluminum’, those of you who read dictionaries for fun would already know, the word was coined by an Englishman as alumium (1808), then changed it to aluminum (the American spelling), but the British editors didn’t like it because it didn’t fit in well with existing element names such as sodium and potassium, so at their whim, they changed it in to aluminium (1812).

So there you have it. We sometimes spell things the way we do because although we hate to admit it, we’re secretly harbouring/harboring a little bit of love for all things French (cheese, wine and now spelling). And Americans decided to walk away from that love because they meant to express their newly gained independence and nationhood etc by all means available to them, which included the way they wrote – the debatable opinion that their spelling patterns are more logical, less superfluous and more phonetic is besides the point, I think.

Anyhow, have a good Fridé.

(did that work?)

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