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Arika Okrent

WATCH: Here's Why Americans Spell Differently to Australians And Brits

Math vs maths.

7 OCT 2016

The most frequent complaint we receive at ScienceAlert is that we misspell certain words. I'm not talking about those pesky typos - I'm talking about civilisation, colours, defence, and leukaemia. And don’t get me started on "maths", because we get serious anxiety every time we have to use it in a headline.


If you’ve always wondered why Americans spell the same English words differently to Australians (like us) and the Brits, the video below breaks down the history of this oddly contentious cultural divide.

As anyone who’s ever learnt (there’s one) English as a second language would know, it features a real hodgepodge of influences, with words of German, Latin, French, and Greek origin popping up all over the place.

And you only need to read a single line of Shakespeare to see how dramatically it’s changed in just the past 400 years, with words whooshing in and out of fashion almost as fast as you can say lumbersexuals (it’s seriously a word now).

The thing is, as much as we all love a good grammar rule or two, the most important job language has is being able to communicate something as clearly as possible.

Sure, we can spice things up by being poetic and ambiguous, but in our day-to-day lives, the quickest and simplest terms will serve us best.

And that there is the entire reason why centre vs center and faeces vs feces exists. 


As this video by Mental Floss and Arika Okrent explains, the divergence of American English from British English is all thanks to one man.

Meet Noah Webster - the patriot who’d had enough of what he considered strange and unreasonable spellings perpetrated by the Brits:

As Okrent explains, the first English dictionary of major authority was Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755,  and it was with this one text that many of the conventions seen in British English today were first established. 

A few decades later, when America had become its own nation, Webster decided that it was time to establish a new, more 'sensible' spelling convention, by writing his own dictionary of American English spelling.

While some of Webster’s changes made perfect sense in the pursuit of simplicity - color instead of colour, ax instead of axe, and artifact instead of artefact - others, such as determin, imagin, wimmin, soop, and thum (wow), were ridiculed, and failed to catch on.

But many of the conventions he proposed, such as dropping the "u" from "ou" words, and simplifying words like jewellery and draught, were favoured by his fellow Americans, and fastforward to now, and you say aluminum, I say aluminium.

At least none of us have to say wimmin, right?


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