What to Know
Favorite and favourite are two variant spellings of the same word with the exact same definition. Favorite without the "u" is the spelling used in the United States, while favourite is used in the rest of the English-speaking world. The "u" in favourite traces back to the influence of French on the English language after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Both variants function as a noun (“chocolate is my favorite”) and as an adjective (“chocolate is my favorite flavor”).
We all have favorites. Although some of us have favourites. Wait, are those the same? Why yes, they are. They are two ways of spelling the same word.
Is It 'Favorite' or 'Favourite'?
The basic idea is this: favorite is the spelling used in the United States; favourite is the spelling used in the rest of the English-speaking world.
The more interesting question is: why?
History of the Word 'Favorite'
English speakers had favorites before they had a favorite version of something; in other words, the noun—as in “chocolate ice cream is my favorite”—is older than the adjective—as in “chocolate is my favorite flavor.” It all began in the late 16th century, when English speakers seem to have been charmed enough by the Italian noun favorito to make favorite (with no "u") from it. The ultimate source was Latin favor, meaning, well, “favor.” English already had that one: favor had mostly been spelled favour since it had arrived in Middle English by way of Anglo-French in the 14th century.
We must make an important aside here about English spelling: while it’s notoriously difficult now, English spelling was in centuries past rather nightmarish—though only if you’re a copyeditor at heart. You see, the spelling was wildly inconsistent (that’s the copyeditor’s nightmare part) but no one minded (so NBD). Shakespeare famously spelled his own name in multiple ways, as did others of his writerly contemporaries, and tens of spellings of common words like house and hand are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as being used over the centuries. It seems that bad spelling just wasn’t a thing, and for a long time.
That being said, we can look at the spellings of favorite from when the word was first getting going in the language in the early 17th century and see some patterns emerging. A peek at the Early English Books Online corpus, which collects works from the 1470s to the 1690s, shows the word gaining some currency in the 1630s, with favourite being somewhat more common, but favorite also in use. (Favourit and favorit were used too but were never more than also-rans.) But starting in the 1650s favorite starts to lose favor, and by the 1680s favourite is the definitive, er, favorite. British use continues along this trajectory: favourite has forevermore been preferred. But in the English of the U.S., the two spellings battled it out for a bit, with favourite largely dominating for the 18th century and into the early 19th century.
But as we wade further into the 19th century, we see favorite, as well as favor, pulling ahead in U.S. English publications. And reader: here is where we beam with pride. This decisive shift to the simpler (and etymologically sounder) spelling can be attributed largely to our own Noah Webster.
As we detail in other places, Noah Webster was a spelling reformer. He wanted the spellings of words to better reflect their pronunciations, and he also wanted the English of the U.S. to be distinct from the English of the British Crown. Webster tossed out the “u” in favourite and in favour (as well as in color, honor, behavior, etc.), with his extremely influential dictionaries insisting on the favorite and favor that we know and love today.
How Did the 'U' Get Into 'Favourite'?
We still, however, have not addressed how the “u” got in there in the first place. The Latin forbear is, as we noted above, favor, which clearly lacks a “u.” So whence the “u”? You can blame the French.
According to Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue, the ou spelling that exists in English traces no further back than the Normans of Norman Conquest fame. (Reminder: the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066 and used the occasion to put French-speaking Normans in nearly all the positions of power in the country, making an extensive and lasting impact on the English language.)
As Murphy writes, “The ou that the Normans initially brought was pronounced in French as it is written: a diphthong formed of an /o/ rounded off with a /u/.” (This is basically the sound in the word out.) The -our spelling reflected pronunciation at the time—it was what the Normans heard. This is why favour predominated in the 14th century, and why favourite took hold in the 17th. Our fave form remains, of course, favorite.
Mark Davies, Early English Books Online (EEBO). English-Corpora.org. Accessed 3/23/2021
Lynne Murphy, _The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English _ (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), pgs. 143-145.