Archive for Noah Webster

From Labour to Labor

Posted in Crosswords, History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t know very much about Australian politics but I was delighted yesterday to hear news of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat in the Federal elections. The losing leader of the illiberal party, and previous PM, Scott Morrison, has now resigned. I’ve got nothing against Mr Morrison’s family, but I’m glad he’s going to be spending more time with them.

One thing that confused me is that the victorious Australian Labor Party is the spelling of the word “Labor”. I think Australians use the English spelling “labour” for the noun or verb so why the political party uses a different spelling for the political party is unclear to me. It is however just a name, and we all know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Some people refer to “labor” as the American spelling but it’s not as simple as that. The English word “labour” is derived from the 3rd declension Latin noun labor/laboris from which in turn is derived the verb laborare. The same sort of Latin origin is the case for many other familiar words: honor, color, valor, humor, vapor, rigor, and so on. All these were original Latin nouns that came into English via Norman French in the course of which they acquired the “u”.

The person responsible for the spelling of these words in American English (ie “labor” etc) was Noah Webster who thought English spelling was unnecessarily complicated and reverted to the Latin in these cases. It was also he who turned “centre” into “center”, for example. This spelling was introduced in his famous dictionary, first published in 1828, and subsequently acquired by the G&C Merriam Co and still in circulation nowadays after many revisions as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Anyway, my point is that the English often look down on such spellings as “labour” and “colour” as vulgar Americanism but these are the “original” (unfrenchified) spellings.

It’s interesting that Norman French words sometimes displaced Old English words entirely but sometimes the Old English form survives as synonym. For example, the Old English word for “colour” is “hew” which survives as the English “hue”. The Old English word for “labour” is “swink” which has completely disappeared from common usage (though it is listed in the One True Chambers Dictionary with the description archaic).

All of which nonsense gives me an excuse to mention that I managed to get an HC (“Highly Commended”) for my clue in Azed Competition No. 2603 which I thought was a very tough puzzle to complete, which is no doubt why there were only 117 entries!