Americans and British people spell things differently largely thanks to one man with an opinion

Shutterstockk/TungCheungNoah Webster normalized many American spellings.
  • Americans and British people have many differences in the way they spell things.
  • Those differences can be largely attributed to Merriam Webster founder Noah Webster, who proposed spelling reforms in the United States starting in the late 1700s.
  • Some of his reforms included changing “centre” to “center” and “draught” to “draft.”

Most English speakers know that when it comes to spelling, Americans and British people don’t always see eye to eye.

The examples are numerous: British people (and people in former British colonies) include the letter U in words like “flavour” and “colour” while Americans write “flavour” and “colour.” The British suffix “-ise” becomes “-ize” in the United States, as in words like “organise” or “recognise.” And words like “center” or “theatre,” as they’re spelled in the US, are spelled “centre” and “theatre” in the UK.

But while many people are familiar with these quirks of American spelling, not many know that they are largely the work of a single man.

That man is Noah Webster, the iconic dictionary editor whose name is now synonymous with dictionaries in the United States.

In the late 1700s, Webster took issue with some of the inconsistencies of British spelling and the troubles they posed for American students learning the language. “Jail,” for example, was a much easier word for an English learner to pronounce than “gaol,” which was the more popular spelling of the word for almost a century.

Noah websterWikimedia CommonsNoah Webster.

He proposed several reforms to English spelling in his first dictionary in 1806. On top of the changes mentioned above, Webster also popularised the dropping of double letters in past-tense verbs like “travelled,” which is commonly spelled “travelled” in the UK, and he also turned “masque” into the more straightforward “mask.” And he’s also the reason Americans started spelling it “draft” instead of “draught” and “public” instead of “publick.”

Although Webster didn’t invent most of the reforms he proposed – many of them had already existed as alternative spellings – it was Webster’s seal of approval that allowed them to gradually catch on in the United States.

However, not all of Webster’s proposals were hits. Despite his best efforts, Americans resisted turning “ache” into “ake,” “soup” into “soop,” and “tongue” into “tung,” even if they appear to make sense phonetically.

But in spite of those duds, we can thank Webster for streamlining our language and for helping to give our spelling its uniquely American charm.

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