The Real Reason Canadians and Americans Spell “Colour” Differently

Hint: It has to do with the American Revolution.

It’s no secret that Americans spell a few words differently than us Canadians. Head south of the border and “colour” becomes “color” and “litre” becomes “liter,” among others. So how did our spellings become so varied? Turns out, there’s just one person to blame: Noah Webster, of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame.

Up until the late 18th century, people didn’t concern themselves with how words were spelled, explains BBC America’s Anglophenia. Because only the most highly educated citizens learned to write at all, spoken word was much more important to them than any type of “proper” spelling (just read a conversational letter from the time if you need proof). That’s until British lexicographer Samuel Johnson published his A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It took a few decades to catch on, but eventually, the Brits were making serious headway toward uniform spelling.

By the time Johnson’s Dictionary had gathered momentum, the Americans were stirring up trouble. After deciding they wanted to be their own country, it only seemed natural that they should have their own spellings, too. Noah Webster led the charge. “As an independent people, our reputation abroad demands that, in all things, we should be federal; be national,” he wrote in a 1789 essay urging spelling reform, “for if we do not respect ourselves, we may be assured that other nations will not respect us.”

Clearly, spelling was a hot-button issue. In order to differentiate American English from British and Canadian English, Webster wanted the American version to be free of the “clamour of pedantry” he thought marked the English language. That meant removing the superfluous letters in words such as “colour” and “programme.” Webster made these spellings official with the first American dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806.

With their new dictionary and truly patriotic spellings, the American people were able to move forward as an independent country.

Next, see if you can pass this quiz of fourth-grade spelling words.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest