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. The omission of the penultimate u in words ending in -our:
2. The reduction of duplicate consonants to single consonants:
3. The omission of a redundant e:
|peas (plu. of pea)
|story (of a house)
4. The change of terminal -re into -er:
5. The omission of unaccented foreign terminations:
6. The omission of u when combined with a or o:
|gantlet (to run the—)
7. The conversion of decayed diphthongs into simple vowels:
8. The change of compound consonants into simple consonants:
9. The change of o into a:
|toffy (or toffee)
10. The change of e into i:
11. The change of y into a, ia or i:
12. The change of c into s:
|vise (a tool)
13. The substitution of s for z:
14. The substitution of k for c:
15. The insertion of a supernumerary e:
16. The substitution of ct for x:
17. The substitution of y for i:
18. Miscellaneous differences:
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 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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 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.