H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Subject Index > Page 228
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

Page 228
 
the u, but honourable retains it! Furthermore, the English make a distinction between two senses of rigor. When used in its pathological sense (not only in the Latin form of rigor mortis, but as an English word) it drops the u; in all other senses it retains the u.
 

2. The Influence of Webster
 
  At the time of the first settlement of America the rules of English orthography were beautifully vague, and so we find the early documents full of spellings that seem quite fantastic today. Aetaernall (for eternal) is in the Acts of the Massachusetts General Court for 1646. But now and then a curious foreshadowing of later American usage is encountered. On July 4, 1631, for example, John Winthrop wrote in his journal that “the governour built a bark at Mistick which was launched this day.” During the eighteenth century, however, and especially after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, there was a general movement in England toward a more inflexible orthography, and many hard and fast rules, still surviving, were then laid down. It was Johnson himself who established the position of the u in the -our words. Bailey, Dyche and other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky 8 and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England. Even in America this usage was not often brought into question until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. True enough, honor appears in the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to have got there rather by accident than by design. In Jefferson’s original draft it is spelled honour. So early as 1768 Benjamin Franklin had published his “Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Remarks and
Note 8.  Cf. Lounsbury: English Spelling and Spelling Reform; p. 209 et seq. Johnson even advocated translatour, emperour, oratour and horrour. But, like most other lexicographers, he was often inconsistent, and the conflict between interiour and exterior, and anteriour and posterior, is his dictionary, laid him open to much criticism. [back]

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