theatre / theater

The most obvious difference in American and British theat{er/re} is the spelling, but on top of that there are a number of meaning differences. And then the meanings interfere with the spellings again. Much fun, but this is why I can't write short blog posts. Here we go...

the spelling

Theater is one of those American spellings that is attributed to Noah Webster.* But like most of successful American spelling reforms, it wasn't made up by an American. It was a long-standing spelling in England, and the predominant spelling at the time when the English colonies in America were first being settled. The OED says:

The earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre; from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater (so in Dictionaries from Cawdrey to Kersey), but theatre in Holland, Milton, Fuller, Dryden, Addison, Pope; Bailey 1721 has both, ‘Theatre, Theater’: and between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.
The word started as theatrum in Latin, and in French it lost its -um. The French pronunciation makes sense with the -re spelling, but the modern English pronunciation does not. However we pronounce that syllable, in whichever English accents we have, it is the same syllable that is spel{led/t} -er in words like butter or later. It's thus no wonder that English writers preferred the -er for some time (and Americans have preferred it for most times), since it is the more Englishy spelling, if by 'Englishy spelling' we mean (as I do) 'spelling that reflects English pronunciation'.

The fashion (for these things are fashion) of using the French spelling has won out in Britain for this and many other words of its ilk: centre, calibre, litre, lustre, sombre, etc. But the fashion is not consistent. Cloister, coriander, and disaster (among others)  have -re spellings in French from -rum spellings in Latin, but -er spellings in all standard contemporary Englishes. And then there's metre and kilometre but perimeter and thermometer, etc. Note, though, that despite their common Latin/Greek etymology (metrum), they have different vowels in the me syllable in BrE. American pronunciation of kilometer as 'kill LAH mitter' drives some Brits I know batty, as it obscures the relation between the met{er/re} and the kilomet{er/re}. They prefer 'KILL-o-meetah'. (I just tried to get Better Half to say it. He said 'kill LAH mitter' and explained 'I'm disarmingly transatlantic'.)

This particular difference has a lot in common with the -or/-our difference: variant spelling in early modern English, then American English settling on the more phonetic spelling, and British English settling on the more French spelling. I've more to say about that, but that's going in the book.

(By the way, I'm trying to get into the habit of listing BrE/AmE variants alphabetically. I may not always succeed, but it's why the ones in this post are listed in those particular orders. I'm also trying to alternate which goes first in British/American, US/UK, BrE/AmE, etc. )

the meanings

Let's be quick and put them in a table.
place where you... What Americans usually say What the British usually say
watch a play theater*  theatre
watch a film/movie (movie) theater* cinema

hear a (university) lecture
lecture hall, auditorium lecture theatre
have surgery operating room; OR (operating) theatre

There are of course other uses of theat{er/re} that extend from the 'drama place' use--e.g. political theat{er/re}. They are generally the same in both countries, but for spelling.

spelling again!

Photo by Kevin Dooley (Flickr)
While theater is the general American spelling, one does see theatre in the US in place or organi{s/z}ation names, like the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, Virginia. The same happens with centre in American place names (but never for the 'middle' meaning of center), such as Robinson Town Centre, a (AmE) outdoor mall, or power center/(BrE) retail park in Pittsburgh.  The namers of these places are taking advantage of the fact that you can spell names however you like, and using the British spelling to make the place sound ‘classy'. Needless to say, we don’t see the reverse in the UK.


I particularly like the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, which just mixes it all up. And movie theatres like the one above are to be congratulated for combining a British spelling and an American meaning. Crazy fun.

* This post originally said theater was in Webster's 1828 dictionary, but, as David Crosbie points out in the comments, it was not, though center and caliber and maneuver (vs. BrE manoeuvre) are there. (Sorry--I'd depended on and possibly overinterpreted someone else's work. You can consult the 1828 dictionary here.) The word does not occur at all in Webster's 'Blue-backed speller'.

100 comments

  1. As an American actor, I can explain why we sometimes use the American and sometimes the British spelling. It's common among folks in the business to refer to the building as a theater, but the art or business as theatre. While I don't follow this practice myself (I exclusively use the American spelling), I've seen it done by many actors, and was explicitly taught this by my high school acting teacher.

    This also explains why the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts is spelled thus.

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  2. I write theatre even in lower case for the legitimate theatre, but theater in all other uses: movie theater, theater of war, etc. I don't know exactly why.

    The American tire center is the British tyre centre is the Canadian tire centre. When I pointed this out to a Brit, he said that to him tire centre would be a place to go to get tired.

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  3. @John Cowan -- sort of a euthanasia facility for the world's Nevilles, no?

    Does professional theater/theatre terminology differ much between the two countries?

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  4. Not to change the subject, but perhaps you could do a post explaining the bizarre situation with -ise/-ize words. For instance, I was recently online reading a predictable British excoriation of American spelling habits that used the word bastardizing (you know, what we Americans do to language) and stopped abruptly to wonder why the word wasn't spelled bastardising.

    Minutes ago I went to my copy of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which reproduces micrographically the complete text of the first edition of the dictionary (whose completion dates to the 1920s, does it not?). Both bastardize and standardize are given primary listings and, weirdly, in the usage citations of both standardize and bastardize appear sentences where the word is spelled -ise as well as -ize.

    Standardize indeed.

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  5. I have heard the same distinction as Dan Jones; -re = the practice, and -er = the building. As a Canadian with American parents, I spell things both ways. I was a "theater" person all my life, until I became a drama major, and intentionally switched my spelling to "theatre" for ease of assimilation in my coursework. (A similar switch from the pronunciation of drama happened at the same time, leaving behind rhymes-with-gramma in favor of rhymes-with-comma.)

    Interestingly, there are some words where I'll happily use either, such as center/centre and caliber/calibre (though I default to AmE when left to my own devices), but despite our use of the metric system, I'm firmly in the camp of meter, liter, etc. I've never written of "kilometres", always "kilometers" (pronounced as per AmE 'kill-AH-mit-ers'; "KILL-o-meters" grates on me, despite the word's pronunciation being split about 60/40 in the area I'm from!)

    As always, Canada is quite happy to steal the parts we like from each language!

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  6. Garrett Wollman26 January, 2016 03:05

    It's worth noting that many older (US) movie theaters started life as the stage (or vaudeville) variety, so the "theatre" spelling may be more natural or historic there.

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  7. Here's another vote for theater = place, theatre = practice.

    I'm from orthographically staid Colorado and not a theatre person, but I do know some folks who are, and probably picked it up from them.

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  8. In my experience, people are driven batty by stress on kiló not because they're Brits but because they're scientists or engineers. Of the rest of us, nobody would say kill-AH-mitter, but many (me included) say kill-OMM-mittuh.

    /kɪˈlɒmɪtə/ follows the same stress rules that produced everybody's pronunciation of geometry, barometer, thermometer, pentameter, parameter etc. In Britain, if not world-wide, we used the word gasometer for that big round device for storing rather than measuring town gas. And I think everybody without exception said /gæˈsɒmɪtə(r)/ — gaSOMMittuh(r).

    OK, we break the rule with centimetre and millimetre which otherwise would have the same stress as perimeter

    As for spelling, the British convention seems to be that words perceived as taken from French are spelled -metre. Words seen as international compounds of (Latinised) Greek elements are spelled -meter. The latter approach is is extended to hybrid compounds like gasometer and,clapometer. Indeed, -ometer seems to have become a semi-productive English suffix. It may not make serious words, but you can play with it and be understood, I can suggest, for example, that Lynne install a peevometer and you'll know what I mean.

    I say '(Latinised) Greek' because some of these words are taken from Latin words in -meter rather than from Greek -metros/-metron. Parameter and hexameter, for example, are Latin words. perimeter wasn't (in that form) a Latin word, but it must have been seen as a might-have-been form.

    LATER
    I've just looked up the OED. They recognise -ometer as a suffix. It was used playfully in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to produce passionometer, foolometer, obscenometer. Mores serious words have been formed, of which only mileometer/milometer looks/sounds at all familiar. Oh yes! there's also speedometer.

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  9. According to Dvid Crystal in Spell It Out, Webster's 1828 dictionary had center but theatre.

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  10. With "millimetre", we don't break the rule, we follow the rule -- it's just that it's a different rule. Granted, there is a rule that certain classically-derived words of more than three syllables are stressed on the last-but-two, such as peRIMeter. But the pronunciation of "millimetre" is governed by another principle: that in a word formed by adding a prefix to a root word, the stress in the root word is not changed. "Millimetre" is the word "metre" with "milli-" prefixed. Hence MILliMEtre. The same goes for every word formed by adding an SI prefix to the word for an SI unit, such as microfarad or kilonewton.

    A couple more examples: anTIPodes by the last-but-two rule; ANtiBODies by the "prefix doesn't change the strss" rule.

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  11. Although it might be out of place on a linguistics blog, recognising quickly and easily all those SI scalar prefixes (kilo, milli, micro etc.) is really important when you're doing maths with them - you need to be able to adjust your powers of ten to get the right answer. I didn't realise there was a formal rule, such as rosie pointed out, but the science/numeracy educator in me is really happy it's there so we don't lose the prefixes into multiple pronunciations.

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  12. Dan Jones (et al.): I can believe that some people make that distinction, but there are certainly buildings in the US called 'the Such-and-Such Theatre', e.g. the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, which contains the 'downstairs theatre'--in this case, not just the building but the room in it. (Examples are not hard to find.)

    Dick H: I've written about ise/ize in various places but not at length on the blog. I will probably do so when I get to that part of the book. In the meantime, Oxford Words blog has this: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/03/ize-or-ise/

    Since posting this, several English friends have claimed to have never heard the KILL-o pronunciation, so perhaps David C is right that it's scientist/non-scientist (though as far as I recall it's been grumpy old Scrabble players, who may, for all I know, have been scientists).

    Also since posting this, Paul Rhodes on Twitter have pointed out: 'One counterexample to "don't see this in the UK": Wolseley UK's brands "Plumb Center", "Parts Center", etc'

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  13. I thought it was interesting that you highlighted the differences in spelling between "metre" and "thermometer" (and similar) in BrE. As an Australian I was always taught that it was "re" for the measurement but "er" for the instrument. So we have litres and kilometres but put our money in a parking meter and have someone around to read the water meter.

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  14. The KILL-o- might be an age thing for BrE pronunciation. From about 40 down, they should have been taught the metric system wholly through school and exposed only to that, except through home and family. They should be used to hearing it until 16, even if they're not scientists.

    For those of us who are older, I certainly used SI units in school in science lessons, although I had to learn imperial units too, in maths classes and the like. My career in science after that left me thinking mostly in SI units and I'm more likely to tell you my height in metres than feet and inches.

    I think it's metre for the measurement (it was invented by the French after all, 10^-7 of the distance between the pole and the equator along the meridian through Paris originally). Meters to measure things. The others seem to be more of a bagatelle, like perimeter.

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  15. I think Claire is right. In BrE, -meter is for a measuring device (odometer, thermometer, opisometer), -metre is for a unit of measure (metre, millimetre, centimetre, kilometre). Roughly anyway.

    Dermot Ryan

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  16. I'm persuaded by Rosie and Elaine that as kilo is a prefix, and as no one would talk about a killOHgramme, I'm not going to vacillate embarrassedly any longer and will stick to KILL-oh- MEET-er in future.

    Curiously, Dick, if you're using an original 1920s Oxford dictionary, it might have been breaking its own rules from that era with bastardise and standardise. I seem to remember pedants from the 1950s who used to maintain that formations from Greek words which had a 'z' in the original should be spelt with a 'z' and formations from Latin or French words where the original was spelt with an 's' should be spelt with an 's'.

    Formations which were simply adding a suffix onto what was an English word anyway were supposed to be split with an 's'. I suspect both of those fall into the last category. They certainly do not derive from Greek.

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  17. I have a photo that I took in Barnes & Noble Philadelphia (Brits: a US national chain of quality bookshops) of two adjacent signs on top of bookcases, that read

    Theater Arts ----- Theatre Arts & Drama

    An example of the variation you mention, Dan Jones?

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  18. Dru, me memory of primary school in the early sixties in the north of England with -ise/-ize as a suffix was that both were acceptable and I chose -ize, liking the letter zed. It was only at work in the mid-seventies that I was told this was the American spelling and was not acceptable for documents I was producing.

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  19. Does the spelling difference still exist when “theatre” is used with one of the following meanings (from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries)?

    A.-[uncountable] plays considered as entertainment
    e.g. current ideas about what makes good theatre (= what makes good entertainment when performed)

    B.-[uncountable] (also the theatre [singular]) the work of writing, producing and acting in plays
    e.g. I want to work in theatre.

    C.-[countable, usually singular] theatre (of war, etc.) (formal) the place in which a war or fighting takes place
    e.g. an intelligence officer in the Pacific theatre

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  20. David Crosbie: You are absolutely right about the 1828 dictionary--I was going from a secondary source. Here's the original: http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/theatre

    Will correct in the post.

    Yes, -meter is for instruments, -metre is for units of measure. My point was just that BrE followed French for one but not the other.

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  21. Dru

    We can't say kil-OH-gram under the old stress placement rule because there's only one syllable after kilo-.

    Kilo- is a strange prefix anyway. Although loosely based on Greek, it's a French invention devised for the metric system and used exclusively for terms in or based on that system.

    Words taking a 'thousand ' prefix from Greek use the form chill-. There aren't many of them, and they all have a second part starting with letter a — with the single exception of chiliomb (in imitation of hecatomb) with only one syllable after the prefix. So it's killy-AND-uh for chiliander and killy-ASS-tick for chiliastic.

    Similarly the prefix milli- is almost exclusively restricted to metric units and imitations. The stress in millennium etc is because the -enn- bit is a variant of ann- 'year', and so naturally takes the stress.

    Deci- seems to be another French invention for the system. Decim- in decimal etc is not a prefix but an English stem from the Latin word for 'tenth'. The actual Latin prefix is the full word decem producing words which conform to the old stress rule, though December and Decembrist would have that stress anyway.

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  22. Lynne

    My source for the Wbster 1928 spellings is Chapter 26 Another Personality in David Crystal's lovely little book. The personality in question is Noah Webster. Do read it if you haven't.. Or if you have, read it again anyway.

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  23. @Damien, not really an example of the usage I was suggesting. Just an example of inconsistency. Although the usage I suggested is, in my experience, common, there's a huge amount of inconsistency in American spelling of "theater" in general.

    If it was following the usage I suggested, it should be Theatre Arts in both cases.

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  24. A small-town movie theater I'm familiar with in upstate New York is known as the Crandell Theatre. It was built in 1926.

    Also of note, the American playwright and screenwriter David Mamet wrote a play titled A Life in the Theatre.

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  25. Scientists get irritated about the kil-OMM-etta pronunciation of kilometre because it breaks the audible rule that is set by centimetre and millimetre - and kilogram for that matter - none of which have emphasis in the middle. We 'rude mechanicals' don't worry too much about the roots of a word, but we do know about prefixes that tell us how to write the measurement in mathematical terms: kilo-, mega-, centi-, milli-, micro-, nano- and so on.

    As to theatre, what happens in the middle of the word? I knew Scottish people who pronounced the word as 'theeter' and similarly Ireland became 'island'.
    Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of talks from an eminent historian from North America - I had to switch off because I could not bear her references to Island, rather than Ireland. Is it only Irish-Americans who can manage the pronunciation?

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  26. There's a fundamental difference between kilometre and thermometer, barometer and so on. The words that end in -metre in BrE are units of length based on the metre, whereas those that end in -meter are measuring instruments. I was taught this in [high-]school physics and taught it myself when I was a physics teacher (but that was a long time ago and I'm much better now thank you).

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  27. I always thought it was an age thing - I'm in my 60s and grew up saying "Kil-OMM-eter".

    What does strike me as odd is that we in the UK only use part of the metric system - we have litres and millilitres, but no centilitres - here, wine is sold in (usually) 750 ml bottles; in France, however, it is sold in 75 cl bottles - exactly the same size! I expect it would be terribly off-topic to wonder what the Canadian usage is....

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  28. Lynne

    Please don't use 'ilk' as though it means 'kind' or 'type', as in "this and many other words of its ilk". I appreciate that we shouldn't rely exclusively on etymological and earlier usage, but 'ilk' here seems quite unnecessary - though I can see it has been accepted as a current usage.

    I do really like your blog, though.

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  29. Actually the centi- prefix isn't really part of the SI system, the 10^±3 prefixes are, milli, micro, pico, etc. going smaller, kilo, mega, giga etc. getting bigger.

    Centimetres exist because people wanted something about the size of the inch. But if you work with the units all the time, you don't use centimetres, centilitres and the like (and I wish no one did, it would make teaching people a lot easier). The French using 75 cl for a bottle and the UK using 750 ml is probably historical but 750 ml is more correct, in terms of the SI unit structure.

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  30. Eloise, at my age there notion of S I System is totally alien. Milli-, centi-, deci-, and hecto- were all part of the metric system we learned about at school.

    I'm not sure if they still do, but when I lived and worked in Italy they used the hectogram or etto.

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  34. [The] American pronunciation of kilometer as 'kill LAH mitter' drives some Brits I know batty, as it obscures the relation between the met{er/re} and the kilomet{er/re}. They prefer 'KILL-o-meetah'. (I just tried to get Better Half to say it. He said 'kill LAH mitter' and explained 'I'm disarmingly transatlantic'.)

    When I grew up in England (born in the 1970s), I almost always heard "kilometer" pronounced with "American" second-syllable stress; the only exception was my eccentric French teacher who insisted on the French-style stress-pattern. As David Crosbie suggests, words such as "thermometer" and "barometer" were well-established in English long before the metric system was invented in post-revolutionary France: it's not surprising that many speakers sought to make "kilomet{re|er}" conform to their stress-pattern.

    Incidentally, the English noun "meter", meaning originally "a person who measures", derives not from French/Latin/Greek but from the impeccably Germanic verb "to mete"; this may account for the near-universal prevalence of the -meter spelling in words indicating a tool for measuring. The other old-established meaning of "met{re|er}", referring to a pattern of syllables in poetry, is found with both spellings up until the seventeenth century.

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  35. @biochemist

    Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of talks from an eminent historian from North America - I had to switch off because I could not bear her references to Island, rather than Ireland.

    I find this hard to believe, unless the historian was one of the few remaining non-rhotic North Americans. Do you remember who it was?

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  36. @biochemist, @vp,

    I'm going to have to agree with @vp. This is a very unusual pronunciation in the States. There are areas (particular on the East Coast) where this might be common (Boston, e.g.), but in SAE, Ireland would be pronounced eye-er-lind (or aɪərlənd in IPA).

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  37. There's also the Theatre at the Center (in Munster, Indiana).

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  38. In my experience in Russian and US English, the only non-SI metric measurement that caught on is centimeter (but not centi- anything else). We used decimeters in (Russian) school as well, but I don't believe it was widely used in real life. In fact, even of the SI prefixes, only kilo- and milli- are widely used. One exception is microseconds and nanoseconds. In fact mega-, giga-, and tera- only came into widespread use only with bytes and bits.

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  39. The metric system and the SI units are the same thing. But teaching the Système Internationale in British schools probably wouldn't have gone down too well. I was probably actually taught it as metric units and the metric system, but it's SI units, SI prefixes etc. is the common usage in the science world and so it's what I remember and use all the time.

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  40. @Boris Zakharin, @Eliose,

    "Centi-" is an SI prefix. (Full document here).

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  41. On the etymology of '-meter' as a suffix for measuring instruments, the OED says:

    "< Middle French, French -mètre (partly via post-classical Latin -meter, -metrum) < ancient Greek -μέτρον (in e.g. ὁδόμετρον : see odometer n.), use as second element of compound of μέτρον measure (see metre n.1). Compare -imeter comb. form, -ometer comb. form (and see note below).
    The generation of scientific and technical terms containing this element appears to have originated in Middle French in the second half of the 16th century. The seminal item was perhaps altimètre (originally an adjective designating a geometrical instrument, probably borrowed from or formed after post-classical Latin altimeter : see altimeter n.). 16th-cent. formations in Middle French include micromètre (see micrometer n.) and graphomètre (see graphometer n.).

    Words containing this terminal element are first attested in English in the 17th cent., the earliest significant example being thermometer n., modelled on the earlier French thermomètre ... "

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  42. Well, egg-on-face here! The BBC talks were given by Professor Linda Colley of Princeton University in Jan 2014, a series of 15-minute talks after the lunchtime news on Radio 4. They are still available on the BBC Radio i-Player as 'Acts of Union and Disunion'. Listening in 2014 between programmes with BrE speakers, she sounded rather more transatlantic than she did just now on my iPad - in fact I thought she had a faint Liverpool accent - she is indeed British. Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt and listen to some of the lectures - she was talking about the British Isles, many smaller islands, and Ireland (and Scotland, which was preparing for its referendum on independence from the UK).

    Now, with apologies for lack of linguistic symbols - theatre/er: I say THE-u-ter with a hard 'th'; the French say tay-AH-tr; my Scots friends said THEE-ter: in AmE is it The-AY-ter? same for the building as for the profession?

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  43. Fascinating, as ever. Lynn. Do please use "ilk" as often and as merrily as you please, for it does indeed "mean" "of that kind, sort, etc."

    I had a long rant about it in Fowler, which I take the liberty of reproducing here:

    "ilk. This is a word that has aroused passions
    among usage commentators, though
    few others, while the meaning they—and
    James Murray—objected to must now be
    considered part of mainstream English.
    For most people the issue will be a conundrum;
    to understand it a bit of history may
    help. Only then will the futility of misdirected
    pedantry become clear. In origin ilk is
    an adjective meaning ‘same’ (Old English
    ilca), but in ordinary contexts it gradually
    retreated before same (of Old Norse origin)
    during the Middle English period and vanished
    from standard English. In Scotland,
    beginning in the 15c., the phrase of that ilk
    emerged and meant ‘of the same place,
    territorial designation, or name’, chiefly in
    the names of landed families, in which case
    convention suggests that it should be capitalized,
    since it forms part of a title, e.g.
    Moncreiffe of that Ilk, Wemyss of that Ilk =
    Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe (a place), Wemyss
    of Wemyss (a place). In the late 18c., by
    analogy with the misunderstood Scottish
    use, ilk began to be used to mean ‘family,
    class’, and, by further extension ‘kind, sort’.
    The OED (1899) has a string of examples of
    these uses from 1790 to 1973, described as
    ‘erroneous’, because the only ‘correct’
    meaning was in the titles of landed families.
    There can be few people left so committed
    to antiquarian etymology as to be irritated
    by the ‘incorrect’ use; nevertheless,
    objecting to this ‘new’ (in heavily inverted
    commas) use, has become part of the folk
    tradition of usage bugbears. The only feature
    of ilk worth commenting on is that in
    general use it often has rather negative connotations:
    it as if it embodies some of the
    contempt with which its original referents,
    the landed few, all too often viewed their
    social inferiors. Fortunately for ilk, it has
    strayed from the aristocratic salons onto
    the broad highway of English. Its origins
    constitute a mildly interesting fact, but
    hardly a compelling argument against its
    modern use. Examples: Rambo and Rocky
    and their ilk are the mere tip of a vast iceberg—
    Encounter, 1987; I’m being flippant.
    Irresponsible in the well-known propensity
    of my ilk—K. Amis, 1988; Other attempts to
    lampoon the secret agent genre aren’t as
    successful. In the wake of Austin Powers
    and its ilk, that vein has been bled dry—
    ReelViews, 2002 (AmE).

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  44. David Crosbie: You are absolutely right about the 1828 dictionary--I was going from a secondary source. Here's the original: http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/theatre

    Lynne: how accurately transcribed do you suppose this online version of Noah Webster's original dictionary might be? I ask only because the definitions of Theatre include several examples where the word is instead spelled theater, e.g. ...

    3. Among the Italians, an assemblage of buildings, which by a happy disposition and elevation, represents an agreeable scene to the eye.

    4. A place rising by steps or gradations like the seats of a theater.
    Shade above shade, a woody theater

    Of stateliest view--

    5. A place of action or exhibition; as the theater of the world.

    6. A building for the exhibition of scholastic exercises, as at Oxford, or for other exhibitions.

    Anatomical theater, a hall with several rows of seats, disposed in the manner of an amphitheater, and a table turning on a pivot in the middle, for anatomical demonstrations.

    Seems kind of nutty.

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  45. Re: ilk, I seem to notice it usually being used in negative contexts (criminals and their ilk).

    Re: kiLOMeter,
    I had a pre-calculus teacher (in the US) who insisted that parabola and hyperbola are to be pronounced with the stress on BOL. I'm not sure if he was joking (he joked a lot), but I don't think these are standard in any variety of English. Are they?

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  46. I only hear the 'thee-AY-ter' pronunciation when people are feigning an 'uncultured' outlook. I don't know anyone who says it seriously (but of course there may be some).

    You can hear several Americans pronouncing it at Forvo. http://forvo.com/word/theater/

    (Gee, it's been so long since I've typed out the html for a link. I used to have to do that all the time when I started the blog!)

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  47. Oh, and thank you for the defen{c/s}e of my 'ilk', Jeremy. :)

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  48. Ah, another comment--not keeping up.

    Dick asked: "Lynne: how accurately transcribed do you suppose this online version of Noah Webster's original dictionary might be? I ask only because the definitions of Theatre include several examples where the word is instead spelled theater, e.g. ..."

    The third edition (1830), which can be seen here has them all as 'theatre'. I can't know if that's sloppy transcription (or automatic processes) at the the '1828' link or if it was made consistent in later editions...

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  49. In other news, 1828 link seems to be associated with a Christian homeschooling organization. They also publish the 'facsimile' edition.

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  50. I was wondering what SI units were. Like David, we just called it the metric system in America when I was in school. My kid says some 40 years later they still called it the metric system when he was taught it in math(s), but they did call it the SI system when they talked about it in his high school chemistry class last year, so he knows what is meant by SI measurements. This, of course, may be specific to the curriculum of my state; I don't know how it is for the rest of the US. For the record, I'm in western South Dakota, in the upper northern high plains of the prairie states.

    In the US we also use 750 ml on bottles of wine and spirits -- we used to measure whiskey and such in ounces instead and changed sometime around 1980 when there was a push to change over to the metric system for everything (which completely failed). I remember having two bottles on my shelf side by side and realizing one was ever-so slightly smaller than the other, wondering why, checking the label, and seeing that one was marked 750 ml. The price had been the same, it was a very sneaky way for the distributors to up their profit because they could reduce the amount they were selling by a tiny margin without people noticing they were getting less for same the price. Not much per bottle, but when you multiply it by thousands of bottles, it added up.

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  51. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  52. "THEATER" is in Webster's 1807 Dictionary of the English Language Compiled for the Use of Common Schools in the United States -- see link here to the 1817 printing.

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  53. "THEATER" is in Webster's 1807 Dictionary of the English Language Compiled for the Use of Common Schools in the United States -- see link here to the 1817 printing.

    vp: thanks for the link. What's most amusing about this spelling is the presence of the letter "e" with an acute accent: Théater. There's something I've never seen!

    Lynne: your link to the 1830 edition in Google Books shows both spellings as a single entry -- they're bracketed together, like this:

    THĒ'A-TRE}
    THĒ'A-TER}

    But you're right -- the definitions and citations within this and related entries all use the theatre spelling. So that "original" 1828 dictionary ain't so authentic.

    I only hear the 'thee-AY-ter' pronunciation when people are feigning an 'uncultured' outlook. I don't know anyone who says it seriously (but of course there may be some).

    Kind of like pronouncing guitar "GEE-tar", which, for instance, Arlo Guthrie does in his satirical antiwar song "Alice's Restaurant."

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  54. Dick: The accent is part of the phonetic info given about the word, not part of the spelling (just as the syllable breaks and stress marks are not part of the proposed spelling). Webster writes in the preface that this is to signal a 'long' vowel.

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  55. Mrs. Redboots:

    In response to your beverage question, Canadians use milliliters too, provided we're talking about soft drinks, and ounces for alcohol (at a restaurant, anyway; I'm pretty sure bottles of wine and beer are labelled in milliliters). And our sizes, like in the US, are likely larger than yours in the UK -- I'm drinking from a standard-sized bottle of pop labelled 591 mL right now. At a restaurant, soft drinks don't tend to come in different sizes; you get what you get, and they may or may not have free refills. The first time I traveled in continental Europe, I was positively baffled by the 0.3L and 0.5L drink sizes on menus -- despite using the metric system, I wasn't accustomed to seeing my drinks sized using liters or centiliters, and couldn't quite envision what quantity would arrive for each.

    For alcohol, beer comes in pints or half pints (although I think pint sizes vary slightly from North America to Europe? Not sure where Canada falls in that range). Wine is most often shown on menus priced 3 ways: by the glass (6 ounces is fairly standard; some places also offer 9 ounce glasses), by the half-carafe, or by the bottle, but no specific measurements are usually given.

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  56. Dick: The accent is part of the phonetic info given about the word, not part of the spelling (just as the syllable breaks and stress marks are not part of the proposed spelling). Webster writes in the preface that this is to signal a 'long' vowel.

    Thanks, Lynne. That makes sense. Of course, I find it a little odd that the next entry, for Theatric, contains no phonetic accent over the letter "e". Or that Théorem gets the accent, Theoretic doesn't, but Théorist does. Can you divine the rationale at work here?

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  57. Thank you, Laura. Here, the standard size is 330 ml, I think. I am still baffled by the odd omissions in our metric system - as a girl, many years ago, I was taught that you had, e.g. 10 millimetres to the centimetre, 10 centimetres to the decimetre, 10 decimetres to the metre, then I think there were dekametres and hectametres until you finally got to the kilometre. Which I have always pronounced with the accent on the "o", as I do "controversy", which pronunciation my grandmother was very against!

    This is off-topic, so I'll stop. Lynne, is there anywhere on your blog to discuss the peculiarities of the metric system?

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  58. "Formations which were simply adding a suffix onto what was an English word anyway were supposed to be split with an 's'."
    Supposed by whom? That is precisely the rule I apply for the use of "-ize", and I have OUP on my side.

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  59. Which I have always pronounced with the accent on the "o", as I do "controversy", which pronunciation my grandmother was very against!

    Hold on there, Mrs Redboots. Which "o" are we talking about? As you probably know, Americans place the accent (emphasis) on the first "o" in "controversy", while Britons, I believe, do the second. Which one was your grandmother very against? I'm deeply curious.

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  60. Sorry, Dick - on the second, by analogy with kil-omm-eter, so con-TROV-ersy. My grandmother preferred CON-troversy.

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  61. Mrs Redboots, the old argument against your pronunciation and in favour of your grandmothers' was that -vers-- wasn't a weak syllable. The (ti)-TUM-ti-ti stress pattern is associated with two weak syllables after the main stress.

    con-TROV-ersy obeys the stress rule for you and me and (I suspect) most English speakers who pronounce -er- as a simple schwa sound without any R-sound involved.

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  62. Dark Star in the Morning, Mre Redboots,

    I've looked up SI and it turns out that the system we were told about at school has been superseded — three times.

    A variant of the system we learned about was called CGS — centimetre-gram-second. This recognised these three units only as basic, Not too much of a depart from the system we learned, just with the basic units stripped of prefixes.

    The next version was MKS — metre-kilogram-second. In this, there's no need to use grams, for example, since 0.001 Kg expresses it in terns of one of the three basic units.

    The SI system also has metre-kilogram-second as base units, to which are added four units we three have little or no idea about: ampere, kelvin, candela, mole.

    All the measure which used to have names — and still do in popular speech — can be expressed in terms of these seven. Tire's no need for litre, for example, since it's expressible in terms of a Kilogram of water.

    A related problem for our generations is the EU list of approved measures. Labels must show an e-size. So nothing is sold with cm or cc on the label — only mm and ml. Stiil, the list is not as minimal as the SI list. Looks at a bottle/carton and you'll see 1 Lire e. This may not affect you in the US, but the UK has signed up to metric units for everything but daft beer, milk in glass bottles and distance on road signs.

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  63. Laura

    American children used too learn

    A pint's pound the world around.

    Unfortunately, this was not true: a pint is !6 ounces only in the US (and maybe some imitators). Until recently, a pint in the British Empire — better qualified for the tag 'the world around' — was 20 ounces.

    In Canada, it seems. this imperial pint has no official status but may be used unofficially her and there. In Britain only draught beer and milk in refillable bottles are sold by the pint, which is, of course, an imperial pint.

    Elsewhere in the former Empire, I think pints are a thing of the past.

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  64. @David Crosbie

    The "pint's a pound" mnemonic may well have originated in Britain.

    The 1843 Penny cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, published in London less than 20 years after the adoption of the imperial system in 1824, contains the following footnote:

    The old pint was more nearly a pound, and some of our readers will remember the old saying: 'A pint's a pound All the world round.' The second line of this was certainly not true, and the first only approximately. But under the imperial system the following, which is literally true, may be substituted,— 'A pint of pure water Weighs a pound and a quarter'

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  65. Re: the other SI base units.

    Amperes are the basic unit of current, and from them you can derive all the electrical units (volts, ohms, farads etc.). Domestically we more often talk about voltage, but current is more useful in a number of ways, because it relates more directly to charge.

    Kelvin is the base unit of temperature. It's the same size as the ºC (so if the temperature rises 1K it also rises 1ºC) but rather than starting from the arbitrary melting point of water at Standard Pressure, it starts from absolute zero.

    Candela is the base unit of luminous intensity. That's loosely how much light energy is emitted from a point source in a given solid angle. It's a bit more complex than that but as the people on this list might recognise from the name, it's fixed at about the light energy from a candle.

    Moles are a fundamental measure of the amount of "stuff" in chemistry. Its definition has changed, but if you remember mass numbers of chemical elements, like Hydrogen has a mass number of 1, Carbon=12 etc. it's the number of atoms of the element to give you a mass of that many grammes. Again it's a little more complex, there are isotopes and things (most people have heard of Carbon-14 which is a bit heavier, used in carbon-dating).

    With MkgsAKcdmol you can derive all the other units. Back when I did my A-level Physics I spent a half-term's worth of homework learning all the derivations of the physical units. Fun, fun (not). But actually very useful for the rest of my career in science, even though I'm not a physicist.

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  66. Fascinating vp

    According to Wikipedia there three were version of the gallon in common use up till the early nineteenth century. The corn gallon, the wine gallon and the ale gallon. (Some sub-editor has asked for a citation, but I'm prepared to believe it.)

    The wine gallon was adopted in America for liquids and the corn gallon — renamed the dry gallon for dry goods. In the UK, Parliament passed an act in 1824 definitively redefining all measure, including the gallon which approximated to the ale gallon but was calculated according to a weight (10 lbs) of water — in imitation of the way a lire was defined.

    The definition of a pint is one eighth of a gallon.

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  67. CORRECTION

    in imitation of the way a lire was defined

    should read

    in imitation of the way a litre was defined

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  68. David Crosbie
    The SI system has been taught in British schools since at least as far back as 1970. Before that, it was CGS. Ampere, Candela, Mole etc were all taught, along with Pascals etc (where most people would use Bar)

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  69. Sorry, Dick - on the second, by analogy with kil-omm-eter, so con-TROV-ersy. My grandmother preferred CON-troversy.

    Thank you for clarifying, Mrs Redboots. Obviously this revelation comes as a bit of a surprise to an American. May I assume your grandmother was A) British and B) not a cult of one in her preference for this pronunciation? In other words, was her preference common to her generation? Or to her generation and, for instance, to her region of England?

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  70. @Dick Hartzell

    The traditional pronunciation of "controversy", on both sides of the Atlantic, had first-syllable primary stress and third-syllable secondary stress (like today's American pronuncation).

    The shift of stress to the second syllable in modern British pronunciation is the result of loss of secondary-stress on the third syllable, probably encouraged by the lack of a rhotic constriction. Once the secondary stress is lost (a widespread phenomenon in British English), the shift to second-syllable stress is natural.

    A similar phenomenon is seen in an (originally) five-syllable word in laboratory, where the traditional first-syllable stress is still shown as the only pronunciation in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1908); today it would be seen as an exclusively American pronuncation.

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  71. The use of liters in the US as primary units is very strangely distributed. Bottled water is sold in 0.5L, 1L, and 1.5L bottles, but then 1 Gallon and 2.5 Gallon. Except that recently, 3L bottles were introduced, often at the same price as the larger 1 Gallon bottles. Milk is sold exclusively in imperial units (1/2 pint, 3/4 pint, pint, quart, 1/2 gallon, 1 gallon). Soft drinks are sold in ounces for cans and small bottles, but 1/2/3 Liters after that. Of course both units are always listed and sometimes the imperial unit is listed first (33.8 FL OZ for 1 liter, say), but the size of the bottle / container is as I described above.

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  72. @Boris Zakharin
    In fact mega-, giga-, and tera- only came into widespread use only with bytes and bits.

    The use of SI prefixes in computer science is an interesting issue. For technical reasons, computer memory is almost always manufactured as a power of 2 bytes. So for example, you can buy memory that contains 1024 bytes (2 to the 10th power), or 1,048,576 bytes (2 to the 20th power) but you'd never find memory that contains 1000 or 1,000,000 bytes. But since 1024 is close to 1000, computer scientists found it convenient to refer to 1024 bytes as a "kilobyte" and 1,048,576 bytes as a "megabyte". This rarely caused confusion when talking about memory. But disk capacity is not constrained to be a power of 2, so disk manufacturers started measuring their capacity in powers of 10, but used the same words as were used for memory. So a megabyte of disk really is (for almost all manufacturers) 1,000,000 bytes, not 1,048,576 as it is for memory. This was done for marketing reasons, since a disk could be claimed to have more "megabytes" when measured in decimal megabytes rather than binary megabytes. This has been the source of endless confusion, especially when the terms are used in other contexts (for example, if your Internet Service Provider offers you a plan that provides 20 megabits per second, is that 20,000,000 bits or 20,971,520?). In 1998 the International Electrotechnical Commission proposed new prefixes kibi-, mebi-, gibi-, etc. to be used instead of the SI prefixes when powers of 2 are intended. Thus 1024 bytes should be called a kibibyte, not a kilobyte. This usage has made slow progress and I've very rarely heard these terms in everyday use among engineers.

    --Mark

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  73. Lynne wrote:
    Also since posting this, Paul Rhodes on Twitter have pointed out: 'One counterexample to "don't see this in the UK": Wolseley UK's brands "Plumb Center", "Parts Center", etc'
    Yes, I immediately thought of a local building supplies merchant called "Builder Center", which spelling I assumed was chosen to create an eye-rhyme.

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  74. Anonymous

    The SI system has been taught in British schools since at least as far back as 1970.

    You don't surprise me, but that's ten years after my last school maths lesson and twelve years after my last school science lesson.

    Back then it was always cc's, not ml's. Subsequently I've lived and worked — and, more to the point, shopped — in many counties that used 'the metric system'. I never noticed shopkeepers using different measurements from the ones I'd learned — except for the Italian etto (hectogram) and the way the Soviet Union used neither cc nor ml but g.

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  75. My wife tells me that in ordinary speech Russians in The Soviet Union didn't use grams for liquid, but I have a clear memory of it on official labels.

    Like me, she has always thought in terms of centimetres, not millimetres.

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  76. Boris, I've observed that the liquid container sizes in the US have been whipsawed between tradition, manufacturing, metric system conversion, all affected by marketing. I think the progression went like this: Milk traditionally came in the pint/quart/half gallon/gallon sizes as you said. When plastic jugs came along, they were in the half gallon and gallon sizes. When water started being sold in stores, it used the same gallon plastic jugs as milk. Soft drinks, being pressurized, couldn't use the half gallon size milk jugs and needed a new bottle, and this was the 70's/early 80's when there was a metric system push, so the 2 liter bottles were used. 3 liter bottles came along after that, but must not have sold well--I haven't seen them for a good 20 years. 1 liters came along a while back, mostly sold in convenience stores aimed at drivers or riders I think. Recently the marketers have come out with 1-1/2 liter bottles to try to replace the 2 liter bottles, a marketing ploy to sell smaller quantities at the same price. That doesn't seem to have worked well at the grocery store I use.

    Oh, and the only place I've ever heard of "SI" instead of "metric" in the US is in science classes. And as a former Air Force weather officer, I always use "centigrade" instead of "Celsius". For some reason, the latter always pushes my buttons, as does the pretentious use of "centre" and "theatre" in AmE.

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  77. Dick Hartzell

    As vp says, the reduction of the -vers- in owes much to the non-rhotic nature of accents such as RP.

    However, there is a non-rhotic pronunciation with a full vowel in, for example, controversial.

    John Wells in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary gives as primary pronunciations

    ˌkɒntrəˈvɜ:ʃl controversial
    ˈkɒntrəvɜ:si controversy

    The latter (presumably the pronunciation of Mrs Redboot's grandmother) has only one stressed syllable. Personally, I could never say that because in ordinary speech my NURSE vowel is always stressed. The stresses removed, vɜ: becomes . So, like most BrE speakers (and presumably Mrs Redboots) I say kənˈtrɒvəsi.

    However, that's not the full picture. John reports:

    Among RP speakers the ˈkɒntr- form probably still predominates; but in BrE in general the -ˈtrɒv- form is clearly more widespread. BrW poll panel preference: ˈ.... 44%, .ˈ... 56%. In AmE 'kɑntr- is the only possibility.

    This is from the First Edition published in 1990. I suspect that the proportions have changed in BrE.

    'RP' is a prestige reference accent, not by any means the most widespread BrE accent. My generation are attracted to emulate RP, so I'm either an RP speaker (loosely defined) or a near-RP speaker.

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  78. John Cowan: "When I pointed this out to a Brit, he said that to him tire centre would be a place to go to get tired."

    Surely, it should be a place to get re-tired. 8-)

    Eloise: "Centimetres exist because people wanted something about the size of the inch. But if you work with the units all the time, you don't use centimetres, centilitres and the like (and I wish no one did, it would make teaching people a lot easier). The French using 75 cl for a bottle and the UK using 750 ml is probably historical but 750 ml is more correct, in terms of the SI unit structure."

    Unit choices vary with context. When I was an astrophysics student, the practice was to use CGS rather than MKS units, so ergs rather than joules, for instance. If you understand the system, there's no need to be so prescriptive. (Though dietitians' Calories, which equal kilocalories, do irritate me.)

    Eloise: "Kelvin is the base unit of temperature. It's the same size as the ºC (so if the temperature rises 1K it also rises 1ºC) but rather than starting from the arbitrary melting point of water at Standard Pressure, it starts from absolute zero."

    While 0° C is defined as the freezing point of water at standard pressure, the system is, of course, defined from the triple-point of water, which is a bit less arbitrarily related to a place.

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  79. @ Dick Harzell - sorry, meant to get back to you yesterday, but fell asleep! Yes, my grandmother was not untypical of her age and class; her preference for "CONtroversy" was not unique. I have a feeling that my father, now aged 92, would say it, too, and it my generation (born in the 1950s) who were the first to shift the stress.

    @Eloise: Surely the centimetre exists because it is 1/100 of a metre? I mean, even if people didn't use it, as they do not (to my knowledge) use hectometres and dekametres, it would still exist. As a schoolgirl - ten years after Dick Crosby, but still long enough ago that dinosaurs practically walked on the earth, I was taught that the units of measurement of fluids, mass and length all consisted of one base unit (litre, gramme and metre - incidentally, how come a gramme is so much smaller than the other two?), which could be divided into tenths, prefix deci-; hundreds, prefix centi- and thousandths, prefix milli- - and, of course, smaller units still, which each had their own prefix. Each unit could also be multiplied by ten, giving it a prefix of deka-, a hundred, prefix hecto- and a thousand, prefix kilo- (and, of course, mega, giga and tera, but we didn't learn those in school). These may not all be in common use, but they certainly all exist!

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  80. Mrs Redboots

    When I was too young to use words like controversy, I nevertheless heard people on the radio. To the best of my recollection I never heard people complaining about conTROVersy until it was already familiar with it and regarded it as THE pronunciation.

    My impression is that your generation is something like the third or fourth to shift the stress.

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  81. I notice that David Crosbie is spelling it "gram" while Eloise and Mrs Redboots are using "gramme". In the US it's always gram. Is it variable for different writers in the UK?

    --Mark

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  82. @markn

    You see both spellings. You also see "tonne" for the metric ton -- it's even made inroads into traditional expressions. I see spellings like "come down on someone like a tonne of bricks", which always makes me laugh.

    Interestingly, according to Google N-grams, "tonne" has recently become relatively more popular than "gramme" in British English.

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  83. I think I see why there's some miscommunication here about measurements. There are, I think, three purposes of measurement::

    1 talking about things
    2 calculating
    3 publishing standards

    1 is the oldest and shaped the way British and American systems evolved. Memory was more important than written record for the majority of users, so as far as possible any object could be sized or priced in terms of a memorable — i.e. small — number of units. And the little bit over or under was not expressed by a fraction but by a smaller unit. We went further than the US in this. We found shillings really useful as intermediate between pounds and pennies. And we still find stones of enormous use. All those hundred of pounds sound the same but weight expressed in stones brings home exactly what we want to know.

    2 Of course this runs totally counter to purpose 1. Calculating yards-feet-inches and stones-pounds-ounces is tedious and prone to error. Maybe this mattered less when popular literacy and numeracy was limited and accounting was left to specialists, but that's not the modern world.

    My understanding of 'the metric system' was shaped in primary school — and I suspect the same is true for Annabel. As our primary teachers envisaged the system it was a compromise between purpose 1 and purpose 2. There was a richness of units applicable to different objects, although not as rich as our own system. Against this it was much much easier to do calculations. This may not have been exactly what the original metric system had in mind, but it's a plausible inference from its original lterminology.

    The problem with this compromise is that it does;t serve too well the practice of science and technology. Here the proliferation of units is not a richness but a diversion. Figures don't have to be memorable as everything is written down. Fractions, in decimal form. are not confusing but desirable. The movement to CGS then to MKS and finally to SI followed the scientists' agenda. Logically it excludes all but seven basic units. In practice, several derived units are tolerated for descriptions outside the laboratory.

    Incidentally, the timing of this shift in British school science teaching left me stranded with a centimetre and cubic centimetre mindset. And I suspect this may be a world-wide phenomenon. My wife thinks in centimetres and in all the other countries where I've been the centimetre seems to have been the conversational standard. And everywhere but everywhere they talked about litres. It's not that these measures are incompatible with SI — it's just that they flourish in fields os discourse where SI is irrelevant.

    Purpose 3 is the one that produces some too the odd results. nation states or supra-national bodies such as the EU control the published measurements on labels. Enforcement could be left to common sense since any unit of measurement can be converted to any other. Claimed units could be converted to SI units and checked accordingly. But that's not how bureaucracies work. The weights and measurement regulations stipulate which units are to be used. But there's a conflict between simplicity (which suits the bureaucrats) and use and practice (which suits the consumer).

    The EU compromise recognises both Litre and millilitre. For the wine trade, at least, it even recognises decilitres. Not just for France; I've found a bottle of Chilean wine with a label entirely in English stating 75 cl e. Britain has acquired an enormous concession. The pint and the mile are recognised units — albeit in closely defined contexts; you can bur a pint of beer but strictly speaking you can't buy a pint of shandy. And if I understand it correctly we can imply some imperial units on our r labels provided that that they are in fact the nearest equivalent in grams or millilitres. So we buy a pint of milk in a glass bottle or 568 millilitres of milk in a plastic carton.

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  84. David Crosbie said:
    American children used too learn

    A pint's pound the world around.

    Do you have a source for that statement?

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  85. PW,

    Only a hazy memory of what an American friend once told me.

    I believed it to be true because it clearly was;t true of any other English-speaking country. What I didn't Know is what vp turned up: that it had once upon a time been a British saying.

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  86. @David Crosbie
    "The SI system has been taught in British schools since at least as far back as 1970.

    You don't surprise me, but that's ten years after my last school maths lesson and twelve years after my last school science lesson.

    Back then it was always cc's, not ml's. Subsequently I've lived and worked — and, more to the point, shopped — in many counties that used 'the metric system'. I never noticed shopkeepers using different measurements from the ones I'd learned — except for the Italian etto (hectogram) and the way the Soviet Union used neither cc nor ml but g."

    When I started physics at school, we were the first to use SI. That would have been 1968-69. Previously, they had taught CGS. The "metric" system used in the UK is not the same as SI. For example, diving cylinders in the UK are marked in Bar, whereas in Australia, they use Kilopascals. Energy is quoted in Calories whereas the SI unit is Joules.

    I was taught that kilometre was pronounced with the emphasis on the "kil", not the "om", but almost everybody pronounces it "kil-OM-eter".

    I was also taught that "gram" was the correct UK spelling - not "gramme". TV "programme" is odd, because it's the only "gram" word that has an "e" on the end.. anagram, diagram, telegram etc

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  87. Anonymous

    Gram turns out to be more interesting than I thought.

    We've seen that English did two things with the word/word fragment meter

    1 It took French complete words and retained the French metre spelling, just as with theatre, centre

    2 It treated it as a 'foreign' (from Latin from Greek) element and used the Latin-like meter spelling

    BrE settled on (1) for metric units and (2) for everything else,

    As you imply, there are also 'everything else' words with -gram. They seem to be treated like thermometer in that the -gram bit is a 'foreign' word-forming element, as in anagram, histogram, telegram.

    From old quotations I gather that BrE initially and until recently treated gram like meter.

    1 As a French whole word with French spelling gramme for the unit, just as with programme

    2 As a 'foreign' word-forming element with Latin-like gram spelling

    This might well have persisted as the only BrE standard but for school science lessons, where even I learned the spelling gram for the unit.

    Another interesting difference between meter and gram is that the latter has served as a first element in a widely used word: gramophone. Quaintly, this first element became a second element in radiogram.

    Now there's a natural pressure to double the consonant for English (i.e. not French) spelling pressures. It's not GRAYmophone, so why not mark the 'short-A' sound and spell it grammophone? This spelling has existed, but the official spelling of The Gramophone Company generally prevailed.

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  88. @David Crosbie,
    Another difference between meter and gram is that only one of the two different meanings of gram used in word compositions (a unit of mass and something that is written) is a standalone English word.

    But I think the reason that program(me) is different is that it was borrowed wholesale into English. That is to say it is not compositionally transparent in its current meaning like other -gram and gram- words are.

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  89. vp:

    According to Wikipedia, "The UK Weights and Measures Act 1985 explicitly excluded from use for trade many units and terms, including the ton and the term "metric ton" for "tonne".[3]"

    Still, I have only ever seen tonne in the US in technical articles dealing with things like carbon dioxide releases and global warming. Even in those, I suspect the author was not American. Metric ton is more common, although also pretty rare in absolute terms.

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  90. Boris Zakharin

    But I think the reason that program(me) is different is that it was borrowed wholesale into English.

    I'm sorry I wan't clearer. That's exactly the point I wished to make.

    I wish I could think of another -gramme word that we got from French, but I can't identify a single one.

    It may be different in that universities formerly used the actual Latin programma as an everyday thing, a type of notice. By contrast, epigramma etc were mere words in dictionaries.

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  91. David Crosbie - we have aerogramme, the folded paper that forms a letter and envelope all in one

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  92. Thanks Biochemist!

    I looked it up in the OED, and they even give as a possible spelling the ultimate French borrowing aérogramme.

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  93. e.d. driscoll

    Yes, I mentioned that earlier.

    Or are you asking a question?

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  94. I thought of this conversation when watching Michael Portillo's "Great American Railroad Journeys" yesterday. I noted that the site of President Lincoln's assassination said "Ford's Theatre" on its front.

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  95. Eloise-

    A mole is just a unit of quantity, like a dozen. It's 6.02214x10^23 units of something. One could have a mole of atoms, a mole of molecules, even a mole of ping-pong balls (theoretically). That particular value of the mole was chosen because it represents the number of carbon-12 atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12 which lets chemists bridge the gap between atomic scale characteristics and macroscale phenomena they can measure.

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  96. Re: Dan Jones's point above, the motto of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is "Great Theatre in a Great Theater".

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  97. I have to admit that the British 'KILL-o-meetah' drives me nuts. Especially the strong emphasis on o-meetah.
    It is clearly a word derived from kilo and meter(metre). Kill-ometre is just a completely unnatural way to rip this word apart.
    Clearly it should be kilo-metre.
    Because we also don't say mill-imminitre or cent-immetre. (mm to signify emphasis)
    Also not Kill-ogramme.

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  98. Tilman, would you rather that we used the spelling pronunciation KIGH-low-mee-tuh?

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)