U and Non-U

I refer here, not to Nancy Mitford’s use of these terms in Noblesse Oblige (a very funny if dated guide to the sociolinguistics of the English class system, circa 1955*).

I mean the troublesome letter U that divides US spelling from UK. As ever, Canada (British North America?) falls somewhere betwixt.

The basic pattern

Let’s start with honour/honor as typical.

The word comes from Latin, which spells it honor without a U. The word came to English via the Normans (1066 and all that), which meant that when it became acclimatised in England it retained the U of the French honneur.

Noah Webster, the nineteenth-century American lexicographer, wanted US English to be closer to its roots in (republican) Rome, so promulgated the non-U spelling that has stuck in the Untidy States ever since.

Canadians, originally more British than Yankee, tended to go with Britannia’s honour rather than Uncle Sam’s honor — but one now sees both spellings north of the 49th parallel. The dominance of US spelling in all things computer-related is wearing away the Anglo; the default settings for spell-check and auto-correct are invariably US English, not our Canuck variant. If you haven’t, please change this; it’s often these little cultural things that really make us different from our neighbo(u)rs to the south.


Honour begets honourable,  and honor honorable.

That much is easy. But you would be deluding yourself if you thought English spelling followed regular rules.

Honour, labour etc. weren’t always the invariable British spellings. The Elizabethans would often leave out the U if they were feeling Latinate: Shakespeare’s play was originally published as Loues labors lost not Love’s Labours Lost. Certain words were routinely spelled with a U until the late 1700s (governourhorrour) but have now lost it.

And in modern British/Canadian English (as in the US), the correct form is honorary, not honourary — although in Canada one often sees the latter on the part of people who are so keen to wave the maple-leaf flag (or perhaps the Red Ensign) that they ignore (or don’t know) what’s correct.

The Yanks are not immune to this either: a number of years back, Ralph Lauren launched a perfume called Glamourous with an extra (but incorrect) U that was presumably intended to make the product look British, posh and … er … glamorous.

Similarly, one correctly writes colour, colourfulcolourise/colourize and colourist but coloration; odour but deodorise/deodorize; humour but humorous; vapour but vaporise/vaporizevigour but invigorate.

No one said it was easy.

Next: miscellaneous little things that annoy me, part 2

*In that book, U stands for ‘upper class’ (napkin not serviette, died not passed away etc.)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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