Word Matters Podcast

Why are American and British English different?

Word Matters, Episode 15

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This week is all about spelling. Some attempts to reform it have succeeded. (You've probably noticed that words are spelled differently in the US than in British English.) Others have failed hilariously. (You'll see.) But we're burying the lede; our first topic is that word itself: 'lede.' How did it find its current form? Then, we'll discuss the godfather of American English himself, Noah Webster. (Yes, that's where we got half our name.)

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: Noah Webster believed in spelling reform, and he was hugely influential in effecting spelling reform.

Neil Serven: People in history don't often get to assign spellings to words. People have tried this. Most of them fail. When they try to make a spelling more simplified, when they try to make it distinct from something else, it doesn't often happen. This is an example that did.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: burying the lede, and why British English and American English look so different. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster Webster Editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

I'm not going to distract with expository information here. In other words, I'm not going to bury the lede. In fact, it's the lede that will be our topic of discussion. That's lede, L-E-D-E. And just how did it come to have that spelling? Here's Neil Serven with the term born in journalism and living in the mainstream.

Neil Serven: We've mentioned before the idioms can enter our language from really anywhere, any source, any kind of experience, any kind of familiar history, any kind of common experience that we know that can then be picked up in the language and establish itself as a familiar phrase. So, we have a phrase that we use when, say, for example... Emily, if I was telling you that I went shopping for new clothes last week, I got this great outfit that I'm going to wear at my new job. You would accuse me of doing something there, right? Because I had never told you before that I was getting a new job. That would be a big deal. Since I was talking about getting new clothes, you would say I was burying the lede.

Emily Brewster: Neil, why'd you bury the lede?

Neil Serven: Why did I bury the lede?

Emily Brewster: What's your new job?

Neil Serven: It's a big deal. I should have told my colleagues here that I was getting a new job. I'm not getting a new job. So, this idiom, bury the lede, comes from journalism. The lede is the introductory section of a news story. It's intended to entice the reader to read the full story. It has the gist of what the article is about. Not all the details, but enough that make you want to learn all the details later in the story. And so in journalism, to bury the lede is to take that important content and put it down in the story so that it's not the first thing the reader sees. The important aspect of the story is sort of hidden by these other more arcane details. And so it kind of makes sense that we use it in idiom, in general context. And journalists of course love to use it, particularly because they're used to using it literally in their own work. So we have an NPR article from 2016. Danny Hajek says, "We're not going to bury the lede here. Bob Ross' hair was actually straight." The A.V. Club has another example, "The big box office story of the weekend isn't exactly strange. So let's bury the lede for a second and start with some good news. Small movies are doing gangbusters business in limited release." That's a rare non-negative use of bury the lede. We often hear about bury the lede in the negative. "You shouldn't bury the lede, don't do that." It's because it's never really a good thing to do in journalism. The curious thing about lede is its spelling. It is spelled in many examples, not all of them, L-E-D-E. But it wasn't always this way. And the word itself derives from our verb lead, L-E-A-D. You would lead a story with the important information. And so it acquired this different alternative spelling, L-E-D-E. And the reason for this, it is believed... It was to create a distinction from the word lead.

Emily Brewster: Well, the ambiguity in L-E-A-D can be problematic.

Neil Serven: L-E-A-D can be read a lot of ways. It can be read as the verb "to lead." It can be read as the noun, the metal, lead, and to lead something, the lead of an article. If you start throwing around these words with all the same spelling, then it gets confusing. So, when we talk about burying the lede, we often see it spelled L-E-D-E, and it seems as though this spelling was deliberately created so as to be distinct from other uses of the verbal 'lead' and the noun 'lead'. And of course 'lead' itself was used in journalism a lot, because lead is used in the lines of Linotype machines. It comes up so much, or it did come up so much, in newsrooms and the news production process, that it was useful to have this alternate spelling.

Emily Brewster: Did they often bury that kind of lead?

Neil Serven: I think you could.

Emily Brewster: The beautiful thing about L-E-D-E is that it is completely unambiguous. As an English word, it pretty clearly reads as \LEED\.

Ammon Shea: Or \LEE-DEE\.

Emily Brewster: Or \LAY-duh\.

Neil Serven: But for a lot of times, journalists would try to keep this under wraps as newsroom jargon. So the journalist Myron Waldman in a book called Forgive Us Our Press Passes said, "Once Al Marlins, the assistant managing editor, told one of the cleaning men to walk up to me and ask to see my lede, spelled L-E-D-E, not L-E-A-D." He's deliberately saying why he's choosing the spelling, L-E-D-E, a newsy slang, for the first sentence of the story. So, this was a helpful thing. It made things more fluid in the office, it made things useful and removed ambiguity in this high speed, trying to get through to deadline you don't want to be confused, you want communication, it's important. So, you don't want there to be confusion. William Safire, who knew a thing or two about newsrooms, didn't care for this spelling. He said, "Wouldn't it be easier if the noun for the metal were spelled the way it sounded, L-E-D, to rhyme with dead, and for the noun for the beginning of the newspaper story were spelled the way it was pronounced, L-E-D-E, or L-E-E-D to rhyme with deed. But others have been more willing to embrace the spelling. I think it depends on what kind of generation of journalist you are. But it struck me as just an interesting phenomenon that people in history don't often get to assign spellings to words. People have tried this. Most of them fail. When they try to make a spelling more simplified, when they try to make it distinct from something else, it doesn't often happen. This is an example that did.

Emily Brewster: But if you're going to do it, doing it within a sphere of jargon is a really great way to do it. It makes me think of mic for microphone, M-I-C, or even M-I-K-E. Both of those, they were first used by people in industries that used these materials.

Ammon Shea: When you're going to do it, do it when you're in a position where you have control over an entire branch of print medium.

Neil Serven: There's a couple interesting angles to this. You first get it to catch on with this small group of people with whom you are sort of intimate because you work in the same job, and you all have kind of the same goal in mind by trying to use this. And also just the fact that in our line of work, when we seek out evidence, a lot of that evidence comes from print media or electronic media. So journalists are kind of at the forefront for presenting the evidence that we see as lexicographers.

Emily Brewster: That's always been the case. The people with platforms have been the people who have created the evidence that lexicographers have used to base their decisions on. Everyone now has a platform for...

Ammon Shea: Yes, evidence can come from Twitter.

Emily Brewster: ... for print, for written evidence. Everyone has a platform. I happen, on Twitter, to follow a lot of journalists. And so I also see journalistic jargon now, as many people do. We now have access to kind of the unpublished thoughts of journalists. And so we have access to a lot more of their jargon. They have a bigger audience to use this jargon with.

Ammon Shea: One of the other things that's interesting about the journalists, that they kind of hid this use of, they kept this jargon separate, initially, was that a lot of the 20th century usage guides were often blaming journalists for kind of destroying the language, working against the English language through laziness, and then just generally uncouth behavior. So you almost wonder if they're a little gun shy about bringing out their kind of linguistic creation. Now that they finally are actually, because most of the time it wasn't really their fault. It was just, they were seen as being this negative influence on the development of language.

Peter Sokolowski: And the fact is, I mean, journalists, fingers crossed, have editors and style guides, and they use dictionaries and they pay close attention to things like hyphenation and capitalization. And the fact is that makes it a little bit sort of inherently conservative. In other words, if there's a hyphenated term that you might think would naturally close over time, which is the way things typically evolve, often the journalists will say, "Well in the dictionary, it's hyphenated, so that's the way I'm going to use it." And as dictionary editors, we look for new evidence and we find that they're actually the echo chamber, that they're using the styling that we present in the dictionary that was actually now 10 or 20 years ago was the standard. And so it can take a lot longer for those standards to evolve. Does that make sense to you? In other words, because there is careful editing for published prose, there's an inherent sort of conservative bias to the language, to the nature of the language, which I think is kind of fascinating.

Neil Serven: It also explains why some decisions to change the styling of a word... In our dictionary, we kept the word website as an open compound for a long time. We turned it closed. The editors and the journalists, they had to kind of make an active decision themselves. This word is familiar enough to me, it's familiar enough to our audience, let's stop treating this like this odd thing. We'll turn it into a single closed compound. It allows us to record those times when they kind of go rogue and decide to make their own decision about something, recording of what is familiar to them. And that's what we record. And that's when we put it in the dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: But we do enter L-E-D-E in the dictionary?

Neil Serven: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. You just made me think, lead and lead and read and read, those are some of the things I trip over most frequently as a reader myself, because I'll have to go back and say, "Oh, that's the past tense, read and not read." It's a peculiarity of the English language that we have the same spellings that are pronounced differently and also refer to different tenses. That's so odd. Kind of another little publishing angle, which is that word leading, L-E-A-D-I-N-G, the noun leading, which is, in topography, the distance between a pair of adjacent lines of composed texts. So, leading is sort of the distance between the space between vertical lines in a text. And it brings to mind a small data point about dictionaries, which is, I think our Collegiate Dictionary has the smallest or the shortest leading of any commercially printed book in America, because the leading of the 11th Collegiate Dictionary is actually negative, which is to say that the space between the lines is actually shorter than the height of a letter, because we have to cram and shoehorn so much information into that book. And that's why our font has very careful risers and descenders for letters like P and Q and D and L. They're short so they don't crash.

Emily Brewster: Yes, we worked really hard to not have to take things out of the dictionary. Before we get too far from bury the lede, I think there are some other journalistic terms that are similar. Spox, S-P-O-X, is an example, also. We now have access to the insider talk of journalists. Presser, also. The POTUS, SCOTUS, all of those are not new, but they are newly popular, a newly commonly known, I think because we now have access to the less guarded thoughts of journalists.

Ammon Shea: The POTUS and SCOTUS oddly enough came up from telegraphs. SCOTUS I think in 1875, and POTUS in I think 1895. They both came up in telegraphic operator code dictionaries, which were these wonderful anti-dictionaries, because companies would use them to send information to each other in coded form, but they did so by ascribing meaning to an alphabetized list of words. So they took a list of words, which were alphabetically organized. And so, like absquatulate would be a word, but absquatulate means, sell grain at $11 a bushel, but don't accept anything less. And so you would just write, "Absquatulate," to your managing agent, and he would say, "Oh, that's the price of grain this week." So there was all kinds of weird shorthand, but it was intended to not explain the words, but to make them more confusing in a way. And then they also added shorthand, and SCOTUS was first attested in telegraphic code, as was POTUS. So I think they had a certain amount of currency, but I'm sure that you're right, that they were then popularized through journalists.

Neil Serven: And of course, telegraphic code had the requirement of being brief because they were expensive to make. We have another forum now in which we kind of encourage terse messaging, which is Twitter.

Emily Brewster: Right. Now that it's 280 characters, things have changed. I feel like they've changed pretty dramatically, but it used to be, to meet that 140 character designation, it could be really challenging. That medium really required brevity in ways that I think affected the language for a time.

Neil Serven: And so you see more use of POTUS, you see spox instead of spokesperson. I mean, you're talking about seven valuable characters that you're saving right there. So it's sort of makes sense that we've kind of gone back to this telegraphy in this very strange, roundabout way.

Peter Sokolowski: And Twitter has done this thing by pulling the curtain back on certain professions that had been invisible, like journalists, copy editors, lexicographers. There's another one which is lorem ipsum, the sort of filler text that we don't enter in the dictionary, but I've seen that used occasionally to refer to meaningless filler text, or published by error.

Neil Serven: You've seen it in context that you've seen, like there was a string of lorem ipsum or something?

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And sometimes they literally mean that sort of pat text. And sometimes they just mean that this is copied from a different document, means nothing in this context, or something. Then maybe we should watch that term for entry in the dictionary. And not bury the lede.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with a conversation about Noah Webster's efforts to do something about the English language's notoriously unphonetic spelling. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Spend a little time with something published on the other side of the pond, and you'll quickly see that there are significant differences between American English and British English spelling. Many of these differences can in fact be traced back to the work of our very own Noah Webster. Next up, I'll look at some of Webster's greatest spelling reform hits and misses. It's very clear to any of us who reads both British English and American English, that there are significant spelling differences. Some of our most common words, so, theater, center, they're both spelled R-E in British English and E-R in American English. But we have the word color spelled O-U-R in British English and O-R in American English. This is because of the efforts of spelling reformers, not least among them, Noah Webster. Spelling reform was kind of a big thing anyway in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Noah Webster believed in spelling reform. And he was hugely influential in effecting spelling reform in American English. Part of it was political. He wanted American English to be distinct from British English, and so he made some of these changes. Some changes that he made caught on and others did not. He, for example, is why we spell jail. The very sensibly J-A-I-L as opposed to the British G-A-O-L. I know, it's so strange. I know that we all have thought about spelling reform in various ways before. So I just thought this would be a good topic. I like to think about his failures. He did have this very charming essay that he wrote where he used Z's in places that we hear the Z sound, that voiced sibilant. And like in the word is and in the word was. And he didn't push that, which was wise.

Peter Sokolowski: But also in words like civilized and analyzed, he succeeded with those.

Emily Brewster: That's right. So he is why we use a Z in those words, but we do not spell was or is I-Z or W-A-Z, which would really be waz, actually.

Ammon Shea: I liked W-U-Z, myself. A lot of the spelling reformers seem to have advocated for W-U-Z, but it really never took.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it didn't. And it does make such good sense.

Neil Serven: I do see it occasionally, like in graffiti, some facetious, what is meant to be a deliberate misspelling by some kids saying, "Chris wuz here," W-U-Z. I don't think they even realize that they're using a form that Noah Webster actually would have encouraged.

Emily Brewster: It's true. Actually, I wonder, as LOL speak, just as we go further down this path of informal written English, I feel like the language right now is very playful. And it'll be interesting to see if some of these reforms that he was interested in effecting, if some of them wind up succeeding to a degree.

Ammon Shea: What I really liked about Noah Webster, aside of the fact that he's the father of the company that we all work for, was that although he was kind of a humorless man, he was very effective at what he did. A lot of the spelling reformers are really kind of bonkers. I mean, they have some pie-in-the-sky mentality that's common among them that makes it extremely unlikely that any of their schemes will come to pass. And it seems to me that Noah at least kind of knew when to cut his losses. He had some stupid ideas and people would say, "That's a dumb idea." And he didn't really say, "You're right and I'm sorry for it," but he would kind of take that in stride. And that's why he didn't push the machine spelled M-I-S-H-E-E-N. It was too forward thinking.

Emily Brewster: Or tongue, T-U-N-G.

Ammon Shea: Sure. Right. But you look at some of these guys... My favorite was Alexander Ellis, who was a 19th century philologist. He published a book in 1848 called A Plea for Phonetic Spelling. And he wanted to change a lot of things. But to me, it was really representative of him as a spelling reformer was that he worked out that scissors could be spelled 82 million different ways. The precise number he came up with, 81,997,920 possible ways of spelling scissors. I should say, he wasn't just a 19th century philologist, he was also a mathematician. I read his piece on this, and he does make a somewhat convincing case for it. But you have to say at some point, come on, man, get it together. Just work on a couple of words, the way that Noah did, and you have a much better chance of success.

Emily Brewster: Well he didn't have access to the platform that Noah Webster had. Noah Webster not only wrote the most influential American dictionaries of America's birth years, but he also had his Blue Back Speller-

Ammon Shea: Right. 100 million copies.

Emily Brewster: ... So he was able to influence generations of schoolchildren on the correct way to spell various words.

Peter Sokolowski: The fact is, though, the premise of all of this is that English spelling is illogical. That's the problem, right? I mean, that's the real problem that everyone is trying to solve.

Emily Brewster: It's beastly.

Peter Sokolowski: It's really devastatingly difficult. And I think Webster had two goals. He wanted to make American English a kind of politically independent variety of the language, and he wanted to make a more phonetically logical variety of English. And he clearly succeeded with the first and failed with the second.

Ammon Shea: There are so many reformers out there, and what's interesting is, yeah, of course English is a beast of a language to spell. Of course it's a real pain and doesn't make sense. And of course you can spell scissors 82 million ways. But what's fascinating to me is that there is no obvious alternative, and the spelling reformers, when you look at their individual efforts... Because many of them would write entire books in their own simplified spelling system and you sit there and you can figure it out, and then, okay, I can get that, but they don't match to the other ones. So there's no one correct way. And it always draws to mind one of my other favorite spelling reformers, which was Melvil Dewey, the father of the Dewey Decimal system we all know and love so much. His name originally was spelled 'Melville', the way Herman Melville was, M-E-L-V-I-L-L-E. And he changed that because he was true to his word. He had the courage of his convictions, so he changed his first name to M-E-L-V-I-L because it's simplified. He tried to change his last name to Dui, D-U-I, and it didn't take.

Peter Sokolowski: It would be hard to read today.

Ammon Shea: It didn't quite work out. In his book on simplified spelling, he had this great sentence which is written in a simplified manner I won't reproduce, but it says, "Many will be annoyed and some will ridicule." It's like the epigraph for the entire spelling reform movement.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. And this is what he had in common with Webster. He hated double letters and he hated silent letters. So Webster dropped the U from humor and color and honor. They serve no phonetic purpose. He dropped the K from words like music and public, because again, we already had the terminal C you didn't need to duplicate that. And that's why we in American English have the convention of conjugating verbs, for example, without doubling the consonants. A word like traveled, for example, would have two L's in British English or the New Yorker Magazine, but just one in most conventional American English. And so Webster had that influence on the language that I think is quite far-reaching, because there's a lot of verb inflections, there's a lot of adjectives that are spelled with only one consonant as a consequence of his hatred for silent letters and double letters.

Neil Serven: It speaks to this idea of a democratic notion behind language.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Neil Serven: What becomes popular is what becomes accepted. And then you've got this one guy who thinks he's starting a revolution by trying to change things. And if you're Noah Webster, obviously you've got the dictionary to kind of help you promote this. If you're somebody else who's not producing a dictionary, then you're kind of this troublemaker, this person who's like just trying to change all the rules that other people have already been learning and then trying to establish this new way that you're trying to get people on board with. That is an extraordinarily hard thing to do. It's a bit of a bombastic and pompous thing to do, just to kind of think your way is somehow going to be better and going to be accepted when the idea of language is trying to communicate and get people on the same page. Almost does the opposite of that. It sort of creates-

Emily Brewster: It's a fool's errand, for sure, but it is a noble attempt to want to simplify things. As someone who used to teach children to read, and specifically children with severe dyslexia, I completely understand the impulse to desperately want to make a word like should spellable.

Ammon Shea: Do you have any personal favorites of Noah's suggestions, words that he suggested changing the spelling of which didn't make it that you'd like to bring back?

Emily Brewster: I like iz and waz with their Z's. And I like soop. I mean, I just think soop, S-O-O-P, is just funny.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, that's got a ring to it.

Emily Brewster: So I like that one. Yeah. And wimmin, W-I-M-M-I-N. That was a nice one. And ake actually, A-K-E, is a really nice one.

Peter Sokolowski: And akre. Same thing.

Emily Brewster: It's a fool's errand. It really is. Unless you happen to be a dictionary publisher... Hey!

Ammon Shea: Hey!

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or email us at wordmatters@merriam-webster.com. You can also visit us anypm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Vogt. Artwork by Annie Jacobsen. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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