American versus Canadian Spelling: It all Started with Noah

by Karen Kemlo

Published at 2014-04-21

Why do Canadians persist in spelling certain words the way we do? Is it a Canadian quirk that we keep all of our British “-our”endings but also borrow the “-izes” from our American neighbours? Maybe like the cliché often used to describe us — we’re just too darn nice. Maybe we just want to get along with everybody. 
Maybe … but sometimes it is annoying to work with American computer software that wants to change every Canadian spelling on the page and marks it as wrong with a squiggly underline.  It’s not a big world problem, but to an editor, it matters. 
Blame It on Noah
I blame it on Noah. Webster, that is. He was a proud American who deeply resented the fact that classrooms in his country were full of British textbooks. So he set about making a series of spelling books that would soon be featured in U.S. schools for almost a century. Webster believed that British spelling rules were overly complex, so he created a dictionary (first published in 1828) that introduced a whole new way of spelling and that would come to be known as American English.
He simplified words like “color,” dropping the “-u” and refusing to spell it the way the British did. Then he set his sights on other words: waggon became wagon, honour became honor, and centre was turned into center. He lopped the second “l” from words like traveler and tunneling. He even tried to slip in a few more changes, but some of them didn’t go over too well with the public, formerly known as the “publick.”
Can you imagine if he had had his way and “soup” had become “soop” or “sponge” had become “spunge”? Or what if “cloak” was spelled “cloke” instead? Most of us wouldn’t notice perhaps, but an editor would. 
Macdonald Chose Canadian
If Webster wanted changes in spelling for political and patriotic purposes in order to make his new country's language distinctive, then so did Canadians. We stood our ground in preserving the differences in Canadian English when faced with the growing popularity of Americanisms.  In fact, Sir John A. Macdonald once issued an Order in Council (on June 12, 1890, according to the National Library of Canada) stating that “the English practice be uniformly followed" in official documents of all sorts. From that point on, our system of spelling honour, colour, theatre, and centre was rigidly set and would appear in Canadian spelling books for decades to come.
We had our pride and our honour, our school programs and catalogues of proper English spellings; our houses had “mould” instead of “mold,” each standing a “storey” or two high. We had “licences” to drive cars that we sometimes “totalled” after drinking our very own Canadian “whisky.”
It “signalled” a change in and a difference between our two countries. It was a “manoeuvre” that mattered to both of our identities. It was an attempt to “nationalize” ourselves, eh? 
Oh wait! Should that be “nationalise”? And is it “dialled” or “dialed,” “benefitting” or “benefiting”? These details matter to an editor.
If you’re obsessed about spelling, check out the Editors’ Association of Canada conference coming up in June.