Tuesday, October 16, 2007

putting the U in endeavo(u)r

Frequent commenter (or commentator, if we want to use an -or ending!) JHM sent me a news item back in July (when I was up to my ears in other things--hence its unnewsiness* now) about NASA misspelling the name of its own space shuttle, Endeavour.


The news source was so (AmE) persnickety ('picky, snobbish'--see comments for BrE version) about letting others repeat its content that I've decided to give my link to a blogger who's written on the topic, so see here for before and after photos and more of the story. (This 'before' photo by John Raoux, AP.)

Of course, what's happened here is that whoever made the sign relied on AmE spelling of the word endeavor, not appreciating that the shuttle was named after Captain James Cook's ship. When it comes to names of individuals (including ships!), spellings should stay the same, regardless of whether an American or a British person is writing the name. Of course, when it's being used as a common noun (not a name) or verb, then the spelling changes. 'U'-ful in BrE and related spelling systems, 'U'-less in AmE.

We've discussed a lot of spelling differences here lately, but unlike many of the others that have come up, this one actually has to do with American spelling reformer Noah Webster, who's usually blamed for or credited with (depending on your point of view) many of the spelling differences between AmE and BrE. Webster's spelling changes were not only motivated by the desire for a closer link between pronunciation and spelling (the usual argument for spelling reform), but also by the political motivation that American English should be differentiated from British. In reflecting on American versus European values, he wrote (apparently--I got this from Wikipedia and it only gives a secondary reference):
America sees the absurdities—she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered 'and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition': She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors...
So, feeling free to shun the 'absurdities' of traditional English spelling, he proposed many changes to the system. Here's a bit from the preface of his Essays and fugitiv writings (1790; quoted in Ford 1912:295) that illustrates some of the changes that he would have liked to have made, but which didn't make it into standard AmE:
In the essays, ritten within the last yeer, a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment. This liberty waz taken by the writers before the age of queen Elizabeth, and to this we are indeted for the preference of modern spelling over that of Gower and Chaucer. The man who admits that the change of housbonde, mynde, ygone, moneth into husband, mind, gone, month iz an improovment, must acknowledge also the riting of helth, breth, rong, tung, munth to be an improovment. There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force ; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it will proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.
But some of the changes that made it into Webster's dictionary did take hold in AmE, particularly the loss of 'u' in (mostly French-derived) words ending in -our (where that -our is pronounced similarly to -er or -or): labo(u)r, colo(u)r, hono(u)r, endeavo(u)r, glamo(u)r, humo(u)r. The Merriam-Webster website has a nice little table illustrating some of Noah Webster's proposals and whether they succeeded in AmE.

Are these matters yet settled? Weirdly, the OED does not list the spellings endeavor and glamor, although it does list both versions of the spelling for the other -our/-or words. And BrE does not include the 'u' in certain derivations of these words, as explained at the humo(u)r entry in the OED:
The English formations, humoured, humourless, humoursome, are here spelt like the n. and vb.; but the derivatives formed on a Latin type, as humoral, humorist, humorous, are spelt humor- as in L. hum{omac}r{omac}sus, etc. (This agrees with Johnson's use.)
Given the need to remember when to put the 'u' in BrE (humour, yes; humorous, no), it's not terribly surprising to me that this 'u'-loss was one of Webster's more successful reforms. There's a certain logic and consistency to another of his successful reforms (discussed back here): the use of a single 'l' in words like travel(l)ing. But it doesn't take a lot of 'skil' to see some of the illogicalities and inconsistencies in the spellings introduced in his essay preface, quoted above...

And lest you think that Americans (not me!) are the only people bent on reforming English spelling, note that the Simplified Spelling Society is a UK-based organi{s/z}ation!

Footnote (hey, look how academic I am!)
* This is a Lynneism, not an Americanism.

Reference
Ford, Emily Ellsworth Fowler (compiler). 1912. Notes on the life of Noah Webster, vol. 1. New York: Burt Franklin.

16 comments:

Doug Sundseth said...

Spelling reform in English seems to have been a popular project for quite a few well-known persons. I knew about Robert McCormick's attempts to change spelling through his newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, but many of the others on this Wikipedia page were previously unknown to me.

John Cowan said...

I have always understood that the persnickety is the AmE equivalent of BrE pernickety, and the OED (draft of June 2007) backs me up here, saying colloq. (orig. Sc.). Many spellings are listed, though persnickety is not one of them; however, the semantic match is perfect.

John Cowan said...

Oops. The OED does indeed have an entry for PERSNICKETY, though without a cross-reference from PERNICKETY, confirming the etymological connection.

Dr. Tom Roche said...

Late 19th c. library pioneer Melvil Dui was also an advocate of spelling reform, but his ideas largely went nowhere. And American spelling still has a more conservative flair in at least the conservative religious arena, at least amongst those Christians and churches that still use the 'Authorised' KJV Bible. Not only are the archaic spellings obviously preserved in that document, but many KJVers regularly refer to the 'Saviour', and many hymns, even written in the 20th century here, still get written with KJVish language and spellings. We can discuss, perhaps, why this is, but it certainly is.

dearieme said...

Webster must have had a cloth ear. If you wanted to change the spelling of endeavour on pronunciation grounds, you'd go for endeavur. Or endevur. Or Scottish endevur, English endevuh, (and prob the latter for Boston too?) To try massive reform on pronunciation grounds probably implies he had a cloth brain too: whose pronunciation, for heaven's sake? How often to reform? Twittery of the first water.

John Cowan said...

The Websterisms which survived were a matter of eliminating pointless distinctions: there really is no reason why some words should have -or and some -our, nor why some should have -re and some -er.

lynneguist said...

Ah, nice catch on pernickety, John C...

Howard said...

'Glamour' is not in fact from French, but from Scots (apparently a corruption of 'grammar'). It also appears that the -our spelling is preferred in American dictionaries. From the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

[Scots, magic spell, alteration of grammar (from the association of learning with magic).]
Usage Note: Many words, such as honor, vapor, and labor, are usually spelled with an -or ending in American English but with an -our ending in British English. The preferred spelling of glamour, however, is -our, making it an exception to the usual American practice. The adjective is more often spelled glamorous in both American and British usage.

lynneguist said...

Good point, Howard--and one that I actually knew! (It's a word that we assign to our first-year students to research!) I added it at the last minute without reflecting...Will soften the 'French-derived' in the post.

mollymooly said...

Glamour is not the only non-French –our; there are also Germanic neighbour (cognate to nigh + boor) and harbour (-bour related to borough) . There are also words from French but which didn't have –or or –our in French: armour and demeanour had –ure; endeavour and behaviour from devoir and avoir; succour from sucurs, and arbour ("bower", from herbier, not related to arbor "tree").

PRan said...

Dear lynneguist,
Thank you for the link to my post(ranatunga.blogspot.com/2007/07/typo.html).
I'm getting loads of traffic from your blog.

Also it's quite interesting to read your blog & very interesting stuff too. Was always thinking 'ahh these Americans...!' when I get syntax errors in my code for 'colour' etc...
The Firefox spell checker is AmE, so bare with me, I'm compelled to use AmE in my scribblings.

lynneguist said...

My old prof Dennis Baron has written about Webster and more recent spelling reforms at his blog, in hono(u)r of Webster's birthday--aka National Dictionary Day (US).

mollymooly said...

pran: you can get British, Canadian, etc dictionaries at firefox addons page

Howard said...

Interesting blog entry by your old prof, Lynne!

However, (digression-from-topic alert!) his bit about the Good Doctor's poking fun at his friend Boswell in his dictionary entry for 'oats' cannot be right. The Dictionary was published eight years before he met Jamie.

Will you tell Dennis Baron or shall I? :-)

Fnarf said...

Yesterday I heard Ian Darke, English football/soccer commentator currently working the World Cup for ESPN in America, use the word "pernickety", which sounded horribly wrong to me; it's "persnickety". But a trip to the dictionary led me to the "chiefly Brit." usage. Learn something every day, I guess.

Or two things; the dictionary in question was English-Spanish (all I had to hand), wherein I learned the exciting translations "chince" and "quinquilloso".

Anonymous said...

Until I read it here in that 1790 quotation from Noah Webster, I had no idea that "husband" used to be spelt "housbonde".

The word must originally have had something to do with houses and bonds, then? I didn't know that. That is useful information that was lost when the spelling was changed.

...Which is rather a good illustration of one of the reasons pronunciation-based spelling reform is a bad idea.

Webster is hoist by his own petard!