Bloody Well Write

September 22, 2009

Theatre vs. theater

Some people say that when it comes to spelling that which is theater — er, theatre — it all comes down to snobbery. Well, to that I say,” Poo-poo to you.”

Outside of the United States, especially in countries that had once been under British control, the word is typically spelled theatre. Those who fought to keep the British spelling didn’t want the proper language to become diluted by a bunch of insolent miscreants — bloody Americans. Stateside, however, theater won out as the predominant spelling. Back in the early 1800s, Noah Webster created “An American Dictionary of the English Language” to Americanize the language of the day, taking out as many British-isms as he could manage. One result: Theatre became theater.

It is prudent to maintain the spelling of any company or movie house or whatnot that happens to spell its name one way, even if you think it should be the other. Some examples:

Music Theatre of Wichita

AMC Theatres

Theatre Rhinoceros (but San Francisco Live Queer Theater)

The Theater section of The New York Times

•  “Paradise Theater” by Styx (but Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor, Wash.)

There is, however, another distinction between the two words that is gaining in popularity. Even though the AP Stylebook hasn’t come around to agreeing yet (but they will), I think that it makes simple sense and provides a reason to use one spelling instead of another, depending on context. And, of course, since the nature of the English language is one of constant transition, I’m all for promoting the separate — yet equal — definitions. (Go ahead, AP: Put up your dukes.)

Going to the theatre tonight — or maybe they ARE the theatre? (photo:

Going to the theatre tonight — or maybe they are the theatre (photo:

Theatre = anything related to a performance or study of an art form, which is not a structure (e.g., a degree, a company, a troupe).

Theater = a structure that houses a dramatic production (e.g., movie, play, musical, opera, ballet, dance).

So: If you are going to the theater (bricks and mortar) to work on scene construction or set up lights or mow the front lawn, cool. If you’re getting all dolled up for an evening at the theatre (very posh), have a mahhhvelous time, dahhhling.

Easy as “Waiting for Godot.”

Happy trails!



December 11, 2008

The Americanization of language

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:18 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

So here I am, sittin’ on the Group W bench. I mean, I’m just sittin’ here, thinkin’ ’bout writin’ my next blog.

OK, so, I’m not sitting on or anywhere near a Group W bench. Thank the gods for that one, I guess. But I love Arlo Guthrie’s tunes so much, and they enter my mind at random times, and just now was one of those times. Perhaps because the subject of this blog revolves around language changing due to popular usage, and Arlo’s simple yet masterful storytelling style often changes the way I talk or think. So I’m offering that little snippet as homage to Arlo. Gotta love Arlo.

Now the thing is, this is only my second entry on Bloody Well Write and I have already received suggestions for topics, which I’m thinking is pretty cool. So I’m taking one of these suggestions to heart.

I overheard some co-workers lamenting the various spellings of certain words (theater vs. theatre, gray vs. grey, color vs. colour) and I told them — briefly — about Noah Webster’s “Dictionary of the English Language.” One guy said, “Hey, that’s what you should write about. It’s very Cliff Clavin, the sort of offbeat information that people love to hear.” Or, as the case may be, that they love to read. So here’s a little background on Mr. Webster and his effort at cleaning up the American language:

  • Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758. At 16, he went to Yale College (during the American Revolutionary War) and earned his law degree. He practiced for a while and then set up a few schools, which succinctly tanked. He moved to New York City to edit a newspaper; he then started his own paper.
  • Webster wrote “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” which consisted of a speller, a grammar and a reader. His intention was to save “our native tongue” from “the clamor of pedantry” that marked English grammar and pronunciation. He also believed that the people must guide the language; the “general custom is the rule of speaking — and every deviation from this must be wrong.” His trifecta, of sorts, was the most popular American book of its time; by 1861, it was selling 1 million copies a year and earning him a royalty of less than a penny per copy — a decent return in those days.
  • Webster is known as “the father of copyright” due to his efforts that led to the federal copyright law of 1790.
  • In 1807, Webster began writing “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit, in order to substantiate his work. Wanting to standardize and simplify American speech since Americans spelled, pronounced and used words differently throughout the country, he often changed “c” to “s” (“defence” became “defense”) and “re” to “er” (“centre” became “center”); he changed double l’s to single l’s (“traveller” became “traveler”); and in later editions, he dropped the “u” in words such as colour or favour and the “k” in words such as “musick.” He also added distinctly American words, such as “hickory” and “chowder.”
  • Webster completed the dictionary in Paris, which was then published in 1828. It contained 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never appeared in a published dictionary.
  • Webster died May 28, 1843.

So there’s a little history lesson on the simplification of the English language. Pretty interesting, I think. Who knows how “American” language will transform itself in the future? With all the texting that is going on these days, abbreviations such as DV8 (“deviate”), ENUF (“enough”), PEEPS (“people”) and PLS (“please”) just might make it into the popular lexicon.

And what goes around comes around, right? So since we started with Arlo, our favorite all-American singer who sings it like it is — no complications, just pure and simple words woven for the listening ear — we’ll end with Arlo: “Good morning, America. How are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.”

Happy trails!


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