Why did Americans drop the "u" from British words like "humour" and "behaviour"? What about "theater" vs. "theatre?"
Siobhan Thompson explains the spelling divide between our nations.
Like many of our most pressing "Why are the British the way they are?" questions, this one has been answered by Siobahn Thompson for BBC America's Anglophenia. Here's how she explains it:
Until the late 18th century, people didn't really concern themselves with how words were spelled (or spelt, if you're English.) In fact, she notes, Shakespeare himself spelled his own name several different ways. (The Bard's name was spelled with more than 80 variations throughout his lifetime.)
So what happened two centuries ago? Basically, Noah Webster happened.
Webster, often called the father of American scholarship and education, thought that American English should be free of the "clamor of pedantry" that he thought marked much of the English language. To that end, he created a three-volume publication for students to learn English designed. The first part was a spelling book that Webster designed to help further distinguish the Americans from those across the pond. For Webster, these spelling changes were intricately bound up with American independence, as he makes clear in a 1789 essay urging spelling reform:
As an independent people, our reputation abroad demands that, in all things, we should be federal; be national; for if we do not respect ourselves, we may be assured that other nations will not respect us. In short, let it be impressed upon the mind of every American, that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad, is treason against the character and dignity of a brave independent people.
Of course, not all of Webster's new spellings took off, as Thompson notes. Webster wanted to change tongue to t-u-n-g. Says Thompson, "like an unlicked stamp, that one didn't quite stick."