Why Do Americans and Brits Spell Words Differently?

(Last Updated On: January 9, 2022)

There aren’t a lot of differences between how American and British people use English–besides regional slang. But some of the more well-known stuff includes the “u” in “colour” or “favour.” There’s also the “l,” like the difference between “travelled” in Britain and “traveled” in America. Is there an actual difference between color and colour? Why do Americans and Brits spell words differently?

Is There a Real Difference?

Well, in terms of how “color” and “colour” are used there is no difference. The only real difference is Americans dropping the “u.” Other than that the words are used exactly the same, and share the same roots (etymologically). 

Let’s run through the variations on “color,” though. The word starts in the 13th century with the Anglo-French culur, moving through a handful of spellings before arriving at color in Latin (derived in part from the Old Latin colos). “Colour” became the predominantly used English spelling of the word, derived from Anglo-French in the 14th century. Americans go back to “color” by the 15th century use of the word, something they started doing about 200 years ago. 

Webster

Spelling has never really been a thing that English has really cared about–at least until the 18th century. No really, Shakespeare’s name had like 80 variations. Why was spelling so inconsistent? Well back then English literacy was comparatively low. In the mid-18th century, literacy in England was around 60%. Which was a huge jump from 30% just like 150 years prior, but that’s also a huge gap from now–where only 16% of people in England are described as having “poor literacy skills.” The point is, with not everyone knowing how to read or write, people who never learned formally just kind of did their best.

Now, you ever heard the name “Noah Webster?” You probably have, because it’s all over some dictionaries. Webster believed that American English should be freed of “clamor and pedantry,” which really just means he was salty that British English was inconsistent. So he put together a publication that was to dictate how English students should learn the language. This came in three volumes, the first of which was centered around spelling–and also used by Webster to differentiate American English from its older British sibling.

A Long Essay Title

While Webster was motivated by how English was so inconsistent in Britain, he was also super wound up in American independence, something he makes pretty clear in an essay he wrote in 1789 called “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling.” In it, Webster even makes the claim that America, as an independent nation, needs to have a good reputation abroad. If Americans couldn’t just spell things the same, it would be indicative that Americans didn’t respect themselves–and thus no other nation should respect Americans.

That’s definitely why people make fun of Americans.

Many of Webster’s proposed new spellings were also shorter–like “color” and “colour.” Some of them were definitely shorter, like changing “tongue” to “tung.” Yeah, not all of those caught on. But the shorter spellings were important to Webster. He contended that the shorter spellings would save money on ink when printing. So not wanting to spend a ton on ink was still a problem then.

Yes, we’re still annoyed that we have to spend like $60 on an ink cartridge to print a black and white document because our printer is out of cyan. 


See if you know other words Americans and Brits spell differently here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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