My recent post on Driver License vs. Driver’s License stirred a discussion about the spellings licence and license.
In American usage, the word license is used as both noun and verb:
license (noun): permission to act.
license (verb): to grant or issue a license to someone, usually after special qualifications have been met.
Modern British usage distinguishes between the noun licence and the verb license:
She has framed her licence to practice medicine and hung it on the wall. (noun)
She was licensed just last week. (verb)
According to a note in the OED, the spelling licence for the noun is more etymologically correct than license because it comes from Latin licentia, by way of French licence. The editor notes that licence would be an acceptable spelling for the verb as well, but acknowledges that the spelling license conforms to the rule that governs other noun/verb pairs like prophecy/prophesy and advice/advise.
Although modern British usage prefers the spelling licence for the noun, Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language has these entries for license (so spelled):
License, a permission, liberty. (noun)
License, to grant leave; to permit by a legal grant; to set at liberty. (verb)
Late 19th century British dictionaries “almost universally have license both for noun and verb, either without alternative or in the first place (OED).”
And it’s clear from several of the OED citations used to illustrate the noun licence that at least some British authors and journalists spelled it license up until the 20th century:
Others would confine the license of disobedience to unjust laws. (1861)
The Sandy Foundation Shaken’ was printed without a license from the Bishop of London. (1872)
The same license was granted to him for dealing with all future criminals of the same class. (1888)
These implements of license were originally made by God. (1901)
I like the modern British practice of distinguishing the noun from the verb. In fact, for a very long time, I believed that licence was the only way to spell the licentious kind of liberty described in 1Peter 4:3: “licence, debauchery, hard drinking, noisy revelry, and drunkenness.”
It’s perhaps regrettable that Americans have only one way to spell license, but that’s the rule.