Friday, July 29, 2011

It’s Webster’s Fault

I always thought it was weird that British and American English can be so different, yet from the same root. I know that languages evolve over time—I’ve only said it every week for the past nine months—but it has always surprised me how different some things can be. There’s realize and realise, color and colour, paralyze and paralyse, traveled and travelled!

What brought about these differences? Short answer: Noah Webster. Apparently, he wanted the two countries to have their own styles, so he ran through the dictionary cutting out letters he felt weren’t needed or were confusing. The double l and u above reflect the former example, while the switch from s to z shows an example of the latter.

Changing all this stuff might seem silly, but I’m sure the fact that the American Revolution just ended and he was looking to distinguish his country from England had nothing to do with his decision to write the American Dictionary of the English Language.

Or, you know. Everything.

Regardless of his motives, he did work hard on thedictionary, for which he learned 26 languages, traveled Europe, and wrote 70,000 entries.

All that because he wanted everything to be accurate! And that attention to detail is also why the dictionary is still used—who do you think is the Webster in Merriam-Webster?—and why the spellings prevailed here in the United States.

I guess that mystery is solved.

Thanks to:
Netstate’s page on Noah Webster.
The online version of Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.


  1. Wow. I hadn't known Webster was behind that much of the differences between Englishes.

  2. Growing up in Nigeria, we used the Oxford's dictionary, but I later got to know of the Webster's.

  3. I always thought of the dropped u in words like colour and honour to be a Yankee "drop dead" to the former motherland....

  4. My German exchange student in high school complained about the differences in English languages. I didn't understand at that time until we took a trip South and she hand to contend with the Southern Drawl. Then she completely had my sympathy!


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