Honor vs. Honour

By Maeve Maddox

One of the most noticeable differences between U.S. and British spelling is that of pairs like honor, honour and glamor, glamour.

The dropping of the u in such words is often attributed to the progressive thinking of American lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843), but Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) thought of it first.

As a printer, Franklin had a professional interest in spelling. In 1768, he published his ideas and ordered a custom type font that included eight extra symbols. Years later, he approached Noah Webster with his innovations. Webster was not interested:

There seems to be an inclination in some writers to alter the spelling of words, by expunging the superfluous letters. This appears to arise from the same pedantic fondness for singularity that prompts new fashions of pronunciation. Thus they write the words favour, honour, etc. without u…”

In 1768, Webster’s view was that it was better “to speak our language with propriety and elegance as we have it,” but by 1789, he’d changed his mind:

I once believed that a reformation of our orthography would be unnecessary and impracticable. This opinion was hasty…I now believe with Dr. Franklin that such a reformation is practicable and highly necessary.”

By the time Webster published his first small dictionary in 1806, he was ready to drop the u from the “honour family” of nouns.

Modern British spelling retains the u in armour, behaviour, clamour, colour, endeavour, favour, fervour, flavour, glamour, harbour, humour, labour, neighbour, odour, rancour, rigour, rumour, saviour, splendour, and similar words.

Even in British spelling, however, when certain endings are added to these nouns, our becomes or.

The endings that alter the our spelling are -ous, -ary, -ation, -ial, and –ific. The following are both British and U.S. spellings: glamorous, humorous, laborious, rancorous, rigorous, coloration, honorary, honorific, armorial.

Note: the word behaviour seems to be putting up a fight. The OED gives both spellings, behavioural and behavioral.

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29 Responses to “Honor vs. Honour”

  • Kat

    It’s not just British vs. American. It’s “anywhere else in the English-speaking world” vs. American.

    And of course it’s fine that Americans use their own spelling variants, but not so fine when they ignore conventions in other countries. I’m in Canada, and know people who have boycotted American-based chains for using American spellings in their Canadian advertisements and promotional materials. It comes across as boorish, and we’re very aware that it would be equally boorish to try to use non-American spellings for advertisements in the USA.

  • !

    Great article.

    Only it’s not “British” spelling. We call that “English.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have been told that “glamour” is different from the other words that are menrioned above.
    This is because “glamour” is a word with Scottish Gaelic roots, and not Anglo-Saxon roots. Please check this out to find out for sure.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Alas, there seems to be an effort or negligence to avoid words from science in these columns. The British and Irish use “vapour” but we Americans use “vapor”.

    There are some geographical names in North America with unusual spellings, such as Indian Harbour Beach, Florida.
    On the other hand, when an Australian newspaper wrote of “Pearl Harbour” that was completely wrong.
    That was just as bad as writing “Sidney, New South Wales”, or “Melborne, Victoria.” We would not do this to the Aussies, so why should they do it to the United States?
    When in Rome, do as the Romans do – at least in spelling.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Of course I am all for (no U) the simplified and in most cases rationalized spellings. I have always wondered why Noah (wouldn’t Noa be better?) didn’t go farther while he had the chance. Especially with the vexation of OUGH hanging over things like an elefant in the room (how’s that for a mixaphor). Except for plow, which I don’t think was his, every ugh of an ough was left like a rusty suit of armOR in the new garage. We could have thrue streets, real donuts, bows that break, ruff and tuff people, cawf drops, hard fawt battles, deep thawts, enuff of this and everything else.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To: Venax

    Noah Webster made many suggestions in simplifying spelling in American English that did not “catch on”. I can just suggest that you look up some articles on Noah Webster to find out what they were.
    Hence, do not blame Noah Webster.

    The word “Noa” is occasionally used. John Glenn was rescued by the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Noa. Destroyers in the Navy are named for people, and I can just suggest that you look her up.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Noah Webster was born in 1758.
    Yet, this article says: “In 1768, Webster’s view was that it was better…”

    I find it to be hard to believe that Webster wrote anything worth keeping (as a matter of history) when he was only 10 years old.
    Could you double-check that and make sure? Maybe it was 1778, when he was 20 years old?
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Dale A. ood: The Noa in the ships’ names are from the surname Noa attached to a sailor from the relative era (early 1900s). It probably has nothing to do with Noah of drifting fame whence Mr. Webster’s given name no doubt arose. Even the English surname Noah has an origin unconnected to the OT.

    I’ve seen a fair amount on the suggestions of NW regarding spelling reform, but I can’t recall anything from him specifically on ough, augh, or gh issues in general. Not to say he didn’t have anything to say on those matters, he probably did. Thank God he won on gaol which completely fails the Good Spelling test.

  • Phil Radler

    venqax: You never fail to entertain. And thank you for that. But specifically re “gaol”: Isn’t that an appropriate residential establishment for people with misplaced “goals”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    O.K. Venqax:
    I didn’t want to insult you by explaining everything in infinite detail, but now you are begging for it:

    All destroyers and similar ships in the Navy are named for people, namely:
    1. Noteworthy and heroic sailors in the U.S. Navy
    2. Noteworthy and heroic members of the U.S. Marine Corps
    3. Secretaries of the Navy – of the United States
    4. A very few exceptions.

    #3 My uncle served on board the USS FRANK KNOX during the Korean War (off the coast of Korea). That ship was named for the Secretary of the Navy from 1941 through 1943. He resigned in 1943 because of poor health, and he was replaced by James V. Forrestal, who later had an aircraft carrier named for him.
    #4 The USS HAROLD C. HOLT was named for the Prime Minister of Australia. He was a strong supporter of the United States, and he had been killed in a drowning accident off the south coast of Australia.
    The USS WINSTON CHURCHILL is named for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a strong ally of the United States, he was. Also, his mother was an American, and Congress voted him as an honorary American citizen.
    The USS ROOSEVELT is named for both President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt.
    The USS ROOSEVELT and the USS WINSTON CHUTCHILL are consecutive ships in the ARLEIGH BURKE class of guided-missile destroyers in the U.S. Navy.

    Don’t try to cross me on anything concerning the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, or about spacecraft. I will beat you every time because I can pull from good books on all of these subjects. I can begin with HISTORY OF UNITED STATES NAVAL OPERATIONS IN WORLD WAR II, by the distinguished scholar Samuel Eliot Morison. It is a huge multivolume set, and I have read nearly all of it.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Both of the destroyers named USS NOA were named for a Navy midshipman named Loveman Noa, who was from Chattanooga, Tennessee – a rather unusual place for such a man. Noa was from a Jewish-American family, and there aren’t very many Jewish people in Tennessee and the neighboring states – excepting Atlanta, Georgia, and a few other big cities.

    Back in 1901 and earlier, a midshipman was a naval officer and not just a cadet. Noa was leading a shore party in the Philippines when he was killed by rebels there. In case you don’t know, in 1899 the United States took over administration of the Philippines from the Spanish Empire. The United States established the goal of preparing the Philippines for independence – something that the Spanish had never done. The Philippines became a self-governing commonwealth in 1935 (concerning internal affairs), and that country gained independence on July 4, 1946.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, the USS NOA was named for a Jewish American who was a naval officer, and a hero.
    Another famous Jewish naval officer was Hyman G. Rickover, who was the top officer in nuclear reactors for years, and he rose to the rank of vice admiral. Also, Jimmy Carter worked under the command of Rickover while Carter was a submatine officer in the U.S. Navy.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oops, “submarine”.

  • Nelson Carter

    Sorry, D.A.W., but I’m missing the bad in “Sidney, New South Wales”.

  • venqax

    Nelson Carter: It’s Sydney. I’m telling you that because DAW will take 3 volumes plus appendices to tell you the same thing and who knows where else it will lead. Y, not I. That’s all. And of course we probably all agree proper nouns, including place names, must be spelled as they are spelled, regardless of any rule that might apply to the language as a whole. So whether it’s a York, a Yorke, a Yourk, or a Yorck all depends on how that place does it. Just like a person’s name. Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, is just plain wrong. Interesting comparison: There are a few Resevoir Streets in the US that are, as you probably guessed, geographically akin to reservoirs. Nonetheless, the streets are spelled Resevoir, without an R before the V.

  • venqax

    DAW, I don’t know what you think you are explaining, or why you are taking offense. I know the ships were named for Loveman Noa. That is why I said, “…from the surname Noa attached to a sailor from the relative era (early 1900s).” Though I should have said relevant, rather than relative. That sailor I referenced was him. His last name, Noa, is also a Hebrew girls’ first name while being a different name altogether from the floating Noah’s. Actually, the 2 are almost opposites in meaning. Now, whether his Noa was related to Noa or Noah, who knoahs. My only point was that if we are reforming spelling, like Webster was, wouldn’t getting rid of superfluous terminal Hs be in as much order as anything else? Yea, probably. Hurra! Yammering bla, bla, bla. Or as already with Sara, Hanna, and Susanna who don’t lose anything.

    I don’t know why you think I was “crossing you” about the Navy. As it happens though, the military is something I, too, know quite a bit about. If you really want to get into details—and of course, you do– midshipmen weren’t actually officers in the sense of commissioned officers, but were warranted, or “training” officers. Lieutenant, then later master, were the lowest commissioned officer ranks. Master really beat out midshipman (passed) for that spot right about the beginning of the Civil War. At the turn of the 20th century, midshipmen were not only cadets at the Academy, but also served with the fleet—usually after completing the Academy but prior to being commissioned as ensigns. They were for the most part treated as if they were officers even though they weren’t really quite there yet.

    Other than that, I don’t know what Noa’s being Jewish, from Tennessee, Carter’s service with Rickover, the modern history of the Philippines, or the list of Famous People Who Got Ships Named After Them have to do with ANYTHING related to the subject of the post or my comment. But, being detailed again, Rickover was an admiral (4 stars) not just a vice admiral (3 stars) and for a very long time– 9 years– before he was finally forced to retire.

  • venqax

    Phil Rader: Thank you and true enough. I can’t think of another word in which a G preceding an A is soft. But if a word is going to break the law, I suppose that one is appropriate. Interestingly, penitentiary is pronounced with 5 syllables in SAE, unlike any other -IARY ending words. Compare judiciary (JOO-DISH-EE-AIR-EE), beneficiary (BEN-A-FISH-EE-AIR-EE) but PEN-I-TEN-CHUR-EE. Maybe it is somehow appropriate that penal terminology deviates from proper behavior.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Venqax just wants to argue with everyone, no matter what they say, or who they are. Venqax wanted to argue about Noah vs. Noa, following an article concerning “or” vs. “our”.
    I just said that there have been numerous people named Noa.
    That should have been the end of the issue.
    Venqax argued that Noa (of a relative era??) had nothing to do with Noah. I pointed out that Loveman Noa was a sailor who was a heroic sailor of the U.S. Navy who happened to be Jewish. Loveman Noa has had two warships of the U.S. Navy named for him.
    THEREFORE, Noa and Noah were both Jewish sailors.
    I told Venqax, “Don’t start an argument about this thing.”
    That should have been the end of the issue.

  • Nelson Carter

    venqax: There IS another word, although we never see it any more. It’s “margarine”.

  • venqax

    Nelson Carter: Yes! Comes from margaric acid and the Greek root of that word, both of which I’d assume were pronounced with a hard G. Don’t know when the soft G took over. Believe it or not, some dictionaries list the hard G, so MAR-GARR-IN, as an alternative pronunciation. I have never heard it. We also have VE-JAN listed as a pronunciation of vegan (probably from the vegetable association).

    My guess is that margarine inherited a false association with the nicknames Margerie, Marjorie, Margie, Madge (where the G of Margarit does usually get properly softened by a change of letter to E or J). Similar false cognates give us Febuary from January, Sherbert from Herbert, hari kari from Harry Carey, chaise lounge from lounge chair, choirpractors from choirs’ singing, and undoubtedly– somewhere by someone– Octember from the embers of Sept, Nov, and Dec.

  • venqax

    Dale, I just don’t know what you are on about. Again. And most of the time. I’m not arguing with you. I was pointing out– not arguing– that the names Noa and Noah were not the same. Although, spelling them both N-O-A has some validity. I agree they were both Jewish sailors, sort of, but I think the H one is probably more famous. PROBABLY. Not saying definitely. He, after all, DIDN’T fight the Filippino insurrectionists, at least not very hard. Sorry about Rickover’s promotion, I didnt’ do it.

  • Dr D P Singh

    So what is going to happen to or (sic) language? Will there still be 24 hors (sic) in a day? Will bread be baked from flor (sic)? Will you por (sic) wine in a glass? …

  • venqax

    Dr D P Singh: I am not sure what you mean. OR makes the sound in horn, corn, form, norm, orbit, and, yes pour. No the OW/OU sound of hour, flour, cow, down.

    So there would be 24 ours in day, bread baked from flour and yes, wine that you por in a glass.

    Better still, there would be: 24 ours in a day, bred baked from flour and wine yu or yoo por in a glass.

    Best of all: 24 owrz in a dae, baekd bred frum flowr and wien yoo por in a glas. It iz too dreem…:)

  • RedMtl

    Kat (and others) made a valid point in that it is not British versus American, but rather English as spoken outside America versus American English. Furthermore, I do not see it mentioned here, but in fact “our” is pronounced slightly differently to the “or” ending, lending credence to the American view that the language was simplified — mostly because people had stopped pronouncing that extra vowel sound. You can spot a Canadian (and others) by the “our” pronunciation. It is closer to the French word “amour” which no self-respecting American would ever consider changing to “amor” instead.

    To the person who asked about “glamour”: yes, it is an old Scottish variant on “grammar” in the sense of to do magic, and indeed the preferred spelling even in America is still “glamour” making it an exception to the rule.

    As for Sidney/Sydney — it is even more an issue in Canada. Sidney is in British Columbia; Sydney is in Nova Scotia — literally at the other side of the country. In between there are a few “north Sydney” type of names [where “north” can be replaced by other words] that are altogether elsewhere. The main two, though, are the B. C. and Nova Scotia locations.

  • venqax

    Only it’s not “British” spelling. We call that “English.”
    Hmm…well, considering that about 2/3 of those on the planet who speak “this language” are American, maybe we need to revisit that. Since the other third seem so upset when they get corrected, it’s only fair 🙂

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Mr. venqax on this one:
    Hmm…well, considering that about 2/3 of those on the planet who speak “this language” are American, maybe we need to revisit that.
    ————————————————————————-

    Furthermore, the Canadian English of the spoken language sounds just like American English, and in particular the kind that we call the language of the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain States, and the states of the Pacific Coast.

    Also, I can’t tell the difference between American English and he language of well-educated Australians. This is not something new, either. I have listened to a recording of a speech that Australian Prime Minister Menzies made in September 1939, and his speech sounded like Midwestern English to me. Menzies was making the speech in which Australia declared war against Nazi Germany.
    His party lost the next federal election, and John Curtain became the PM, and he held that post until the first half of 1945, when he died.
    Menzies took over as the PM within a year or two, and he remained the PM until about 1961 – a long time, and longer than any other Aussie P.M.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    One last time: Venqax was arguing that Noah and Noa did not have ANYTHING to do with one another. It was purely argumentative, and I have pointed out a couple of ways that Noah and Noa had a significant amount to do with each other.
    Now Venqax wants to argue that he wasn’t arguing.
    Whether you planned on it or not, you were being argumentative.
    D.A.W.

  • Rob

    Can’t tell the difference between an Australian (at least a “well-educated” one) and an American, eh?

    Methinks a trip to the doctor for an ear exam is in order…

  • venqax

    The words, DAW, the words (names) Noa and Noah are not related. We are talking about language, not maritime judaica.

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