The spelling “color” versus “colour” is one of the most noticeable differences between American and British English. Americans have used the spelling “color” since at least the early 18th century, while the British have maintained the older spelling “colour”.
– The spelling “color” became popularized in America following Noah Webster’s spelling reforms in the early 19th century. His 1806 dictionary codified many American spellings.
– Webster championed simplified spellings that matched pronunciation more closely. He thought “colour” should be spelled “color” since the word contains no “u” sound.
– This etymological spelling was meant to make reading easier and help define American English as distinct from British English.
– The simplified spelling “color” was already in use by some American writers in the 18th century before Webster. But his dictionary helped make it standard.
– British English has kept the older French spelling that entered English in the Middle Ages. The Latin word was “color” but French scribes added a “u”.
– The “u” was meant to indicate pronunciation but became silent over time in English. British English retains many historic French spellings like “colour”.
The Origins of “Color” versus “Colour”
The word “color” comes from the Latin word “color” meaning a covering or hue. This Latin root word dates back over 2,000 years. In the Middle Ages, the Latin word was adopted into Anglo-French as “colour”, with the addition of the Anglo-French spelling “u”. This “u” was meant to indicate pronunciation but it later became silent in English.
When the word entered English in the 1300s from Anglo-French, it maintained the spelling “colour” while the Latin spelling “color” fell out of use. British English today retains the historic “u” in the word while American English uses a spelling closer to the original Latin.
Pre-Webster Use of “Color” in America
Although Noah Webster popularized the spelling “color”, there is evidence it was already in use by some American writers in the 18th century before Webster published his first dictionary in 1806.
For example, the Declaration of Independence written in 1776 uses the spelling “color” rather than “colour”. This suggests some of the American Founding Fathers already preferred the simplified spelling.
Earlier still, documents show other 18th century Americans sometimes used “color”. There are examples like a 1725 will in York County, Virginia that uses “color” and a 1792 gravestone in Massachusetts inscribed with “color”.
So “color” existed as a variant American spelling before Webster codified it as standard. But his dictionaries helped cement it as the customary American form.
Noah Webster and Spelling Reform
Noah Webster was a teacher, lexicographer, and prolific author in the early United States. He championed using American English spellings over British spellings.
In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. One of its aims was to capture American spelling conventions, as this excerpt shows:
“Great alterations have been made in the language to complete its regularity and precision. America has carried this reformation of the language further than England has ventured to do.”
Webster was born shortly after the American Revolution in 1758 and was an ardent patriot. He believed America should cultivate its own national identity rather than remain dependent on Britain.
Part of forging an independent American culture involved creating distinctive American English spellings. Webster saw this as unshackling the country from its colonial past.
In his dictionary, he codified already existing American spellings like “color” while also creating reformed versions of other words like “center” instead of “centre”.
Webster’s Arguments for Spelling Reform
Webster gave several reasons for favoring reformed American spellings in his dictionary:
Matching pronunciation – Webster prioritized phonetic-based spellings that closely matched pronunciation. He thought “colour” should be “color” since Americans did not pronounce the “u”.
Simplification – Dropping surplus letters made words easier to spell and read, helping standardize American English. Webster saw extra letters like the “u” in “colour” as unnecessary complexity.
Distinction – New American spellings served to differentiate American English from British English, helping develop a unique national language.
Etymology – Spellings like “color” were closer to the original Latin root word, which Webster saw as sensible for a language like English with Latin-based origins.
Later American Dictionary Writers
After Webster, subsequent American dictionaries continued using his spelling reforms and built on them further. For example:
– Joseph Worcester’s dictionaries (1846-60) kept spellings like “color” and contributed new American spellings like “wagon” over “waggon”.
– Webster’s own later dictionaries like An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) revised his earlier work to include thousands more reformed spellings.
– The Century Dictionary (1889-91) solidified more Americanizations like “defense” and “analyze” versus the British forms.
So “color” became implanted as the standard American spelling due to its early adoption by Webster followed by other dictionary writers cementing it as conventional usage.
British Retention of “Colour” Spelling
In contrast to American English, British English has maintained the historic spelling of “colour” that came via Anglo-French in the Middle Ages.
The first British dictionaries tended to be more conservative and so upheld the traditional “colour” over the American innovation of “color”. For example:
– Samuel Johnson’s popular A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) used “colour” as the standard spelling.
– Early 19th century British dictionaries like Thomas Sheridan’s A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1789) also preferred “colour”.
– The famous Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928) continued to use “colour” as the headword spelling.
So historic precedent has led British English to retain spelling conventions like “colour” while American English reformers chose to simplify historic spellings.
Distinguishing British vs. American English
The different spelling of “color” versus “colour” is one of the most visible ways to distinguish American writing from British writing.
Some other differences between American and British spelling include:
So the simplified American “color” versus Anglicized British “colour” is one of many spelling differences that sets American and British writing apart. Publishers will often maintain the spellings customary to their variety of English.
Rest of the World’s Preference
Outside the main divide between American and British English, other English speakers around the world tend to prefer:
– “Color” – Canada, Australia, New Zealand often follow American conventions
– “Colour” – Most other countries follow British conventions
But there are exceptions. For example, Canada switches between both forms, showing the influence of being neighboring the United States.
Among non-native English speakers worldwide, “colour” is the more widely understood spelling when reading or writing English. But book and website publishers will choose the form matching their target audience.
While Americans prioritized phonetic-based spellings matching pronunciation, the British retained more historic French spellings like “colour”.
Noah Webster championed spelling reforms like “color” that served the political aim of distinguishing American English and culture. His 1806 dictionary was influential in standardizing such changes.
So “color” versus “colour” emerged as one of the signature differences between American and British English spelling that remains to this day. It provides an easy visual cue for identifying the intended variety of English.
Yet the distinction is only a convention, as Americans can understand “colour” and the British “color” just fine. But each form fits the customary spelling norms of either side of the Atlantic.