Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Why Americans Celebrate Labor (and not Labour) Day

It's the first Monday in September, when the United States observes Labor Day by avoiding labor. Today is a holiday north of the border too, but in Canada it's called Labour Day. Labour, of course, is the accepted spelling in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries like Canada. Americans prefer labor to labour, just as they prefer color, favor, honor, humor, neighbor, and a few dozen other words ending in -o(u)r. How did the spellings diverge?

As with so many distinctly American spellings, Noah Webster gets a lot of the credit — though not all of it. Many of the spelling reforms pioneered by Webster had their roots in earlier orthographic innovations on both sides of the Atlantic. In the case of -our words changing to -or, the groundwork was laid in the seventeenth century. Most words ending in -our had entered English from French after the Norman Conquest and stayed that way in words of two syllables. In longer words, the -u- tended to be dropped, and some felt that the two-syllable words should be regularized too. In one of the early English dictionaries, Thomas Blount's Glossographia of 1656, the shift to -or was already evident in a few words: Blount had error instead of the earlier errour, armor instead of armour, and ill-favored instead of ill-favoured.

Dictionaries weren't very settled in their spelling, however, before Samuel Johnson endeavored (or endeavoured) to provide a more consistent rendering of English in his landmark Dictionary of the English Language (1755). As David Wolman, author of Righting the Mother Tongue, explained in our interview with him, Johnson was rather conservative in spelling matters, at least early in his lexicographical career. So Johnson insisted on spelling fantastic as fantastick and magic as magick, even though the -ick variants were already falling out of style. Similarly, he chose to go with errour instead of error, since he saw the latter as an unnecessary kind of phonetic spelling.

Johnson belittled these new-fangled spellings, but in doing so helped shed light on the proposed orthographic reforms of his day:

We have since had no general reformers; but some ingenious men have endeavoured to deserve well of their country, by writing honor and labor for honour and labour, red for read in the preter-tense, sais for says, repete for repeat, explane for explain, or declame for declaim. Of these it may be said, that as they have done no good, they have done little harm; both because they have innovated little, and because few have followed them.

But the early spelling reformers so disdained by Johnson did have some followers in later years, Noah Webster being chief among them. Like Johnson, Webster sought to stabilize the inconsistencies of English spelling, but Webster was much more willing to introduce "rational" spelling reforms based on the phonetic shape of words. In the preface to his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he justified the -or spelling and made his break from Dr. Johnson:

To purify our orthography from corruptions and restore to words their genuine spelling, we ought to reject u from honor, favor, candor, error, and others of this class. Under the Norman princes, when every effort of royal authority was exerted to crush the Saxons and obliterate their language, the Norman French was the only language of the English courts and legal proceedings, and the Latin words which, at that period, were introduced into use in England, came clothed with the French livery... Hence for some centuries, our language was disfigured with a class of mongrels, splendour, inferiour, superiour, authour, and the like, which are neither Latin nor French, nor calculated to exhibit the English pronunciation. Johnson, in reverence to usage, retained this vitious orthography, without regarding the palpable absurdity of inserting u in primitive words, when it must be omitted in the derivatives, superiority, inferiority and the like; for no person ever wrote superiourity, inferiourity. A sense of propriety however, has nearly triumphed over these errors; and our best writers have almost unanimously rejected the u from this whole class of words, except perhaps ten or twelve.

Thus the idea of writing labour as labor, along with similar spellings, wasn't original to Webster, but he was a powerful advocate for their adoption. His Compendious Dictionary had significant repercussions on the direction of American orthography. Even Webster's bitterest rival in the dictionary trade, Joseph Emerson Worcester, accepted the change of -our to -or, though he rejected most of Webster's other Americanizations. Webster's impact wasn't immediate, but by the mid-nineteenth century American spelling had firmly and irrevocably switched over to the -or style. To this day, it remains one of the starkest differences between American and British English.

Here you can find a list of words that Americans spell with -or and Brits spell with -our. For more on the topic of -o(u)r, see Chris M. Anson's 1990 article in the International Journal of Lexicography, "Errours and Endeavors: A Case Study in American Orthography." And for the influence of Webster on American spelling in general, see David Micklethwait's Noah Webster and the American Dictionary (2005).

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 7th 2009, 7:08 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Thanks for clearing that up, Ben. I for one was under the misapprehension that Webster initiated these reforms off his own bat, so I'm glad to learn the more complex facts of the case.

It would be easy for us to drop the 'u' now, but a feeling that our culture has been Americanised enough will probably prevent us.

You'll note I didn't write 'Americanized'. I prefer the 'ise' spelling simply because, with the six-fingered way I type, the letter 'z' is a no-no that interrupts my 10-words-a-minute flow!
Monday September 7th 2009, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Lynne M. (Brighton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I have a feeling the VT blogs don't allow links in the comments, but I'll try and hope you'll excuse the self-promotion!

I blogged about this a bit at, which starts with an amusing illustration:

But when I saw the headline on the VT home page about 'American -or words', it made me think it was going to be about the agentive suffix, for which there may also be some AmE/BrE differences--blogged about here:

Monday September 7th 2009, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Lynne M. (Brighton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Woo-hoo, you can post links! There'll be no stopping me now. Uh-oh.
Monday September 7th 2009, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Morton S. (N. Miami Beach, FL)
While you're at it, why don't you put the scalpel to other problematic areas? Why not change the -able/-ible problem to all -ible or, not to show "favouritism," -eble. It would avoid the "ea" problem of "changeable, noticeable" since since "i" or "e" preserve the "g" or "c" sounds.

And a plea for punctuation help: The period falls within the double quotes: ..."trusting." What about the single quote? ...'trusting.' / ...'trusting'.? I can't find a source.

And if you're really up for a fight, how about more punctuation for clarity and emotion? For example, the pre-positioned question mark (as in Spanish, but I favor/favour it rightside up) so that you can see a question that starts off sounding declarative? Et al.
Monday September 7th 2009, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
That's a good point about the pre-positioning of question marks.

Is Spanish the only language to do that upside-down business?

Actually, I've just thought, we do the same with squiggly quote marks (as opposed to these 'straight' ones). We put the opening marks upside down.
Monday September 7th 2009, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Oh, please don't make punctuating things any more complicated!

Since I emigrated to Canada from the US some 50 (almost) years ago, I've adopted some 'colonial' spellings. I've gone to the 'our' in many words, totally confusing my right and left brains. But since I taught English here, it was expected that I follow the straight and narrow path.

I'm for using the schwa. I have had a life long spelling problem and the 'ance'/'ence' words don't make it any easier!

The problem I see is how would one write the schwa?
Tuesday September 8th 2009, 7:48 PM
Comment by: Geoff M. (HAWKER Australia)
Maybe someone could shed some light on why Americans use 'aluminum' and the British Commonwealth countries use 'aluminium'.
Friday September 11th 2009, 9:51 AM
Comment by: Taganana
Thursday October 1st 2009, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
The spelling reformers were without honour.

There is a problem with spelling reform. It covers up the history of the word in question. It also denies the contributions of other languages to English.

When you change the spelling of a word you nullify its ability to invoke its origins in its meaning. It is important to recognise the role of tradition and history in the subtlety of a word's meaning – changing the spelling breaks a word's connexion to its past and turns it into a blunt instrument rather than one of finesse.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I see what you're saying, Daniel, and I love etymology. But I don't quite see your logic, since the history of a word (with all that it implies in terms of meaning, etc, that you mention) includes the changes that it has gone through for one fascinating reason or another. Wouldn't 'americanizing' our spelling simply add another layer to that history of change?

And rather than denying the contributions of other languages to English (which I agree are fundamental to a word's history, for what is English other than a wonderful composite of other languages?) wouldn't americanisation simply add yet another language to the mix, namely American-English?

I can sympathise with a queasiness felt about 'artificial' spelling changes as opposed to 'natural' changes occurring over centuries through various pressures brought on by national, international, class, etc factors, but ultimately a desire to rationalise a language's spelling (for example, to save ink and paper would be an ecological rationalisation today) is simply another factor causing the pressures on a word to change.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Hey Geoff, I see what you're saying too. And yeah, it's mainly the artificial changes I have a problem with.

With regard to new spellings adding to the history, I'm not so much in agreement. Since, when a word is standardised what usually happens is that the aspect of its spelling that made it recognisable as from French, or Dutch or Old Norse is replaced by a bland phonetic spelling. Maybe that bland mechanical nature is evocative of American Industrialism. It wouldn't be so bad if I could choose to use either spelling as I saw fit. Though when asked to guess a colour, I might come up with yellow or red; when asked to guess a color all I can think of is navy blue or grey (or should that be gray?). But when groups like the IUPAC force me (as a scientist) to spell sulphur as sulfur, I die a little inside.

Artificially changing the spelling of a word feels like ripping down a grand old cinema and replacing it with a shiny new mega-plex. Sure it may fulfil the mechanical aspects of its functionality better but it loses its emotive power.
Saturday October 3rd 2009, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Daniel, hello there. Expanding the issue to include Gaumonts becoming mega-plexes is helpful, because it then becomes a general debate about the merits of modernisation, which we're always having to consider because change is being forced upon us in so many spheres of life.

The emotive power you speak of is something I very much identify with. I'm 67 and currently writing my childhood memoirs so my children can see in more detail the circumstances in which I grew up. To them it reads like ancient history. But my brother and I have been enjoying recalling the emotive power of the 'picture houses' we frequented with their incredible art deco interiors, huge balconies, etc; nights round the coal fire listening to the wireless; taking the steam train to Weymouth for our summer holidays; and so on.

When my children are my age and come to write *their* memoirs, although it's hard to believe, I'm positive that the megaplexes and malls; nights spent in centrally heated homes watching their plasma televisions; or taking the bullet train on holiday to the Black Sea; and so on, all these things will have the same emotive power for them. The things and experiences that had emotive power for their dad will be historical curiosities to them.

I want to reinforce my earlier point about etymological layers with an example. Take the word 'somersault'. My online etymological dictionary says it has already occasionally been corrupted into 'somerset'. (That word 'corrupted' is an emotive word to describe a simple word change; its use demonstrates what an emotional subject etymology is!)

It's true that the replacement of 'sault' by 'set' loses the connection with Latin 'salire/saltus = to jump/a jump' and a cognate like 'assault'. But then 'assail' also derives from 'salire' but looks to have nautical roots! (And the word 'salt' doesn't derive from 'salire' at all.)

Meanwhile, what has 'somer' got to do with jumping? It's from Latin 'supra = over', but the emotive connection was lost many layers ago. How must the Old Provs (Provencals?) have felt when their word 'sobresaut', with its powerful connections to its origins in 'supra saltus', sloppily acquired an 'm' and an 'l' in Middle French days to become 'sombresault', and how must *they* have felt when 16th fancy dans dropped the *crucial* 'b' and swapped the 're' round to 'er', making 'somersault'?

supra saltus = the Roman amphitheatre = chariot = messenger slave
sobresaut = the Globe Theatre = horse and cart = pigeon post
sombresault = The Gaumont = etc etc
somersault = The Multiplex
somerset = Home Movie System with large flat screen and surround sound.

Each layer contains its own emotive power for the people who grew up with it, frequenting that place, using that mode of transport, using that means of communication, using that word.

I suppose I'm a relativist (except I do recognise in architecture things like the Golden Rule and sheer hugeness as absolutes able to produce emotive power, but neither apply to words).

My wife and I live in Worcester which, like Leicester, acknowledges its Roman 'camp' past. My wife is American and went to a college in Ohio in a town called Wooster. Oops! (In fact I'm sure it's not a corruption of Worcester, no more than Bertie's name is - and there is at least one Worcester in the States, pronounced Wor-ces-ter of course!)
Monday September 2nd 2013, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
Worcester (Massachusetts) is pronounced /wooster/, likewise Leicester and many others. I don't know of the Wor-ces-ter pronunciation. At least in the east, we've revered english pronunciations of our place names.
Monday September 1st 2014, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Jusaman (Trinidad and Tobago)
Interesting and elucidating article. But I should like some explanation/justification for using the word 'tire' in place of 'tyre'. Don't you think that this is unnecessary as it introduces ambiguity in place of clarity?
There is a justified criticism of the English language for sometimes being imprecise unlike other languages like French and Spanish that use different words to express differences in concept. The French, for example speak of "le mot juste" - the right word for the context.

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Webster's influence was on American English huge, but not all of his reforms panned out.
The first part of our interview with David Wolman about his book "Righting the Mother Tongue."
David Wolman muses on the quixotic nature of spelling reform in part two of our interview.