Although the reasons why British spelling keeps the u in certain words, such as colour, flavour and honour, may not be very definite, it may speak to a sense of tradition and a hesitation to make sweeping changes to the accepted spelling rules. While many Brits may blame Americans for hijacking and ruining the language, in reality, English had undergone numerous changes over the centuries, dictated by different influences. The division that had begun to take place between American spelling, which favored -or endings, and British spelling, which used -our endings, was first apparent with the publication of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.
Samuel Johnson, who published the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, was a spelling purist. His dictionary was and is considered the accepted authority on British spelling. He felt that his purpose wasn’t to advocate spelling reform, but only to document accepted British spelling. He even went as far to say that the “evolution” of spelling was a corruption of the language, particularly with “American” English. Webster, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to advocate for spelling reform, and included “Americanized” spellings with -or endings. Webster believed that spelling could be simplified and still remain correct.
Some British scholars as early as the 16th and 17th centuries thought that -or should only be used for words derived from Latin origins, while -our should only be used for French derivations. Although most of the words that end in -or and -our are of Latin and Old French origins, and both endings were used interchangeably, after the Norman Conquest, spelling switched to strictly using -our in an effort to pay tribute to the old French pronunciations of the words.
A London court called the Old Bailey ruled in the 17th century that -our endings were the correct British spelling. It became commonly accepted in Britain that in cases where an English suffix or suffixes of Greek or Latin origins are attached, the u is kept. This is demonstrated in the word neighbourhood. The difference comes with Latin suffixes that don’t attach freely to words, such as in vigorous. In these cases, the u can be retained or dropped.
Countries that are or were commonwealths of England usually follow common British spelling, with the exception of the US. Canadians typically use both, while Australians retain the -our endings. American English continues to be criticized by many British English speakers, while many Americans wonder why the Brits retain seemingly antiquated aspects of the language. Although many chalk up the American adaptations of British spelling to the early colonists’ spirit of independence or perhaps to increasing influences from immigrants around the world, British spelling is documented in early American writing.
One such example is in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson used the British spelling of honour, which was changed to honor by the final draft. Why did he make this change? It could have been an innocent spelling error, or perhaps it was just another act of rebellion against the British.