The Colour of Monie

Notice something wrong with the spelling of the headline above? Yes, that's right, I've spelt 'monie' incorrectly. And according to my English UK Microsoft spellchecker, everything else is perfectly correct, including of course the word 'colour'. Which is as it should be, as I sit here in the leafy-greened splendour of the Queen's blessed and many wondrous sceptred isle.

But what is it with 'correct' spellings? Is it a quirk of history that you Americans spell everything 'wrong', whereas those of us English speakers with the Queen's head on our counterfeit fiat currency tend to spell everything 'correctly', or is there something more catallactic going on? Shakespeare himself, the greatest writer of English there will ever be, rarely bothered himself with 'correct' spellings, preferring to spell his manuscript words instead the exact way he wanted his actors to say them, much as modern Arabic is written down, however the writer pleases. So why do the rest of us get so hung up about spelling, especially us Brits, and especially us Brits about the word 'colour'?

According to a friend of mine in Montana, there is a revisionist historical reason behind all of this needless squabbling, and yes, it really does come down to the immoral use of force and the superiority of the free market. And if my friend is correct, I may even have to default my spellchecker to English US, to keep my faith with Austro-libertarian principles. You may see why in a minute, and my apologies to you if you've heard this before.

Here's the gist. According to the story, when printing really got going around the King James period of the 1600s, just after the time of Shakespeare, there were two sets of British printers on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Back here in Olde Englande, on the hearty isle of yore, a powerful printing trade guild quickly established itself around the innovative technology of printing presses, with all the accoutrements of force-backed monopoly and its usual bean-feast of consumer exploitation.

As these guild printers were paid by the letter they sought every single possible intellectual excuse as to why every word should be spelt with as many letters as possible. Hence, the ridiculous 'through'. The printing guilds would take Greek derivations, or Latin derivations, or French derivations, or whatever derivation, as gospel, dependent upon whichever one gave them the longest possible 'correct' spelling.

Meanwhile, on your side of the Atlantic, in Newe Englande, British printers worked in a competitive free market with no guild and no force-backed monopoly, though still working on the basis of cost per letter printed. However, instead of trying to lengthen words, to maximise their charges to an obliged public, this competitive pressure made the Colonial printers try to find ways to shorten the 'correct' spellings of words, so as to reduce their prices, so as to make themselves more attractive to the burgeoning American marketplace. Hence, 'thru'.

And so, the relationship between the US and Britain, which is historically based upon the throwing off of an unwelcome force-based yoke, has been stamped ever since throughout the two printed languages right there in front of our eyes — so next time some subject of Her Majesty complains to you about your incorrect spelling of the word 'colour', ward them off with a forty minute libertarian rant about the oppression of Great Britain in Virginia, in the 1650s. Most excellent.

Now this is just a story, and I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back it up. But I do just get the Kantian feeling that it has more than an inkling of truth about it. If you do know the actual facts behind this supposition, and where I could find them, please let me know, as if this is a true story, then I think it's splendiferous.

I also may consider adopting US spellings to annoy all the English socialists I have the deepest pleasure of meeting with on a daily basis. However, can I make one request? Please don't get me started on Dick Van Dyke's 'British' accent, in the film 'Mary Poppins'. That really is going too far.

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When I was living in

When I was living in England, I heard that Prince Philip preferred American spellings to the Queen's English. I imagine this leads to heated discussions at the dinner table.

Whoa! Talk about inaccurate.

Whoa! Talk about inaccurate. First of all, those spelling changes were the work of Webster, and not all of them got through. Secondly, words like 'through' are spelled that way because it was pronounced something like 'throwkh' when English spelling was first formalised.

Your explaination explains earlier spellings like 'sonne' and 'sunne', but not words like 'through', which is a fossil of an earlier pronunciation.

As Keith already said, words

As Keith already said, words that seem to have a lot of extra letters (e.g. "knight") were once pronounced with all of them.

Beyond that, even spellings like "sonne" have a valid historical reason: the Anglo-Saxon case system. A phrase like "Ye Olde Shoppe," now so popular in the general imagination as an example of flowery excess, made perfect grammatical sense in an earlier age. The equivalence of "y" and "th" can be seen in Shakespeare's epitaph here).
"Shoppe" shows a case ending that would be different between the phrases "this is a shop" and "I went to a shop" [Actually, I don't know these particular endings, and sometimes forms just happen to look the same; I'm speaking generally here.] As for "olde," even today German adjectives have case endings.

Put it all together and you get perfectly valid non-economic reasons.

By the time of the forming of America many spellings were obsolete; the reformed American spellings reflected a general willingness to break with English traditions in that area as we'd done in other areas. Webster made many more changes that were considered too radical (e.g. bread -> bred).

Hi Keith and Randall, Damn,

Hi Keith and Randall,

Damn, it was a quirk of history after all! :-)

That'll teach me to go with my Kantian feelings! 8-)

Still, it's a nice story. Any counter bids by anyone?


I think, also, that the

I think, also, that the influence of non-English speakers on the culture of the colonies pre-revolution may have had an effect on spelling; superfluous letters at the ends of words may have gotten dropped, and other words' extra letters that could not be justified on pronunciation bases may have been dropped, simply because there wasn't the same cultural conservatism (i.e. its a British thing and we're all Britons, so why change). Obviously, a complete purge was unsuccessful (and probably undesired).

I can see why one would drop the "u" from Color. Ou is "oo" or "ow" in American. Lour = Loor, nor Lore. So if you have something that says "kuh-lor" you certainly don't stick a U in there. The american vacillation between "glamor" and "glamour" works either way depending on your regional accent, so I allow the U in that case. ^_^ But I can't think, off hand, of any American accent that pronounces color like a daft Frenchman (kuh-loor). So away with the U!

Actually Keith and

Actually Keith and Randall,

Having googled Mr Webster, he didn't release his dictionary until 1828, which is over two hundred years after the Mayflower landed, which is an awful long time for things to have developed, in language. Webster could simply have been codifying what American printers will already have been using as a developed 'lingua franca' for much of those 200 years.

People are very loathe to change things once established. Even now we say 'Physics' rather than 'Fysics', because the greeks decided to drop the early greek 'F' from their original alphabet, perhaps for obscure religious reasons, and replaced it with 'PH', which we still inconveniently use over 2,000 years later. And look at QWERTY keyboards, designed originally to slow people down, but still with us? Why change things when they work, unless there is an underlying driving force? After all, is not America the land of the saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'?

And what is a more powerful underlying trend than the basic economics of human action?

For everyone to up and change all of their spellings in 1828, after 200 years of separate spelling development from Ye Olde Englande, just because one man said so, strikes me as a little odd. I think he will have stood much more chance of success if all he was doing was following a trend he'd already observed, and then claiming the credit. Many people have got very rich that way. And if this is the case, what could've started that trend?

However, this is merely idle speculation, and you're probably both right, but you've now given me a rather interesting hobby trying to research this more, until I almost certainly come round to the conclusion that, yes, you both are right! :-)

Have a great weekend.

Michael Quinion blames

Michael Quinion blames Webster as well, at least for "color", "jewelry", "theater", "aluminum" and "sulfur".

bq. _And look at QWERTY

bq. _And look at QWERTY keyboards, designed originally to slow people down, but still with us?_

Actually, the QWERTY keyboard was desgined to prevent key jams and therefore enable *faster* typing, but the fact remains that its raison d'{e^}tre has been *way* overcome by events.

Evidence, I have evidence!

Evidence, I have evidence! :-)

Check out this link:


Benjamin Franklin, the man himself, was campaigning for reduced English spellings, way back in 1768, that's fully 60 years before Noah Webster, to remove unnecessary letters. And notice that part-time profession of Mr Franklin's? Yep, you got it: Printer.

The hunt for Blue Oktober continues...

Keith beat me to it. Those

Keith beat me to it. Those extra letters are survivals from Middle English, when the language sounded a lot more like Dutch. Not only were all those consonants pronounced, but the vowels had a continental quality.

As for Americanized spellings, it's my understanding that both variants were used in this country until Webster came along with his hobby-horse about "American English" and tried to make the spelling as un-British as possible.

But spelling changes aren't really a big deal, compared to what the Augustan lexicographers and the nineteenth century schoolmarms have done to the language on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, in many languages the double negative is a common means of adding emphasis. That was true of English until three hundred years ago, when a bunch of over-educated yahoos decided to impose a pseudo-latinate grammar on the language. Shit, I've found *quadruple* negatives in Chaucer.

And what about "ain't" as a contraction for "am not"?

You know what's always struck me about all the usages that the schoolmarms call "incorrect" or "substandard"? The same "mistakes" are made by ordinary English speakers from Yorkshire to Kentucky. To me, that indicates that those "mistakes" are built into the spoken language, and that they probably reflect its original rules. They are "mistakes" only in relation to a later set of rules.

I wish the schoolmarms would go easy on regional dialect and other "non-standard" deviations from English as she is goodly spoken, and go after the REAL enemies of the language: bureaucracy, advertising, and journalism. For example, why have the words "affect," "influence," and "result" been almost completely replaced by "impact"?

Andy, On the "physics"


On the "physics" thing, the Greeks actually have an "f" in their alphabet. They represent the f-sound with a single letter, phi. The problem lies with how Greek was transliterated into the Roman alphabet. For some reason, the Romans decided to use the letters "ph" instead of "f".

Why they did it that way, I have no idea, since the Roman alphabet had a perfectly good F. Does anybody else know?

Hmmmm.... First of all, the


First of all, the 'ph' in 'physics' comes from an aspirated 'p' that later changed into an 'f'.

I'm not at all surprised that spellings changed in American English. Considering that it was far from being an homogenous society during its early years, that what were at the time misspellings became standard is far from surprising.

There have been efforts to 'fix' the spelling system umpteen times in history. The fact is that most fail because most people put up with the current system as changing it seems more trouble than it's worth. A good spelling system is phonemic, not phonetic, and achieving that's quite difficult.

Combine that with a language that has at least two base spelling systems--latin and anglo-saxon--and you've a recipe for this kind of thing anyway.

What sticks in my craw is when people try and drag economics into areas where it doesn't really apply. Before you make claims that only somebody who's trained in linguistics can make, you should really study it yourself.

In the meantime, take a look at Mark Rosenfelder's "Hou tu pranownse Inglish".

I can only imagine how you'd react if you were introduced to Irish, a language with a spelling system that on the surface looks utterly outlandish, but is in fact well-adapted to dealing with adapting an alphabet ill-suited to a phonemically rich language like Gaelic. Spellings exist as they are for reasons that have little to do with economics.

But the most outlandish thing about the claim is that all these supposed extra letters really amounts to some big payoff for these horrid guild printers. I'm sure some small bit of statistical analysis would prove the claim to be nonsense.

And what Kevin said. :-)

What sticks in my craw is

What sticks in my craw is when people try and drag economics into areas where it doesn’t really apply. Before you make claims that only somebody who’s trained in linguistics can make, you should really study it yourself.

What sticks in my craw is when people take things way too seriously, especially when these "claims" were accompanied by all sorts of disclaimers about believing them at face value.

"What sticks in my craw is

"What sticks in my craw is when people try and drag economics into areas where it doesn?t really apply."

No such thing. Praxeology extends to the entire realm of deliberate human action.

What sticks in my craw is

What sticks in my craw is when people take things way too seriously, especially when these ?claims? were accompanied by all sorts of disclaimers about believing them at face value.

Ok, fair enough. I did overreact a bit, and for that I apologise. But only using correct spelling. :)

Praxeology extends to the entire realm of deliberate human action.

Economics != Praxeology. If anything, it's a subdiscipline. Mises should have known better than to conflate them. Praxeology encompasses not just economics, but sociology, psychology, philosophy, and various others too.