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Honour and honorary

Q From Sir Peter Bottomley: Why in British English is there no u in “honorary”?

A American readers, accustomed to honor, might instead ask why a u appears in British honour. And that’s an equally interesting question.

It might seem simply that honour and honorary are following a spelling rule, on the pattern of glamorous, humorous, rigorous and vigorous, whose nouns all include a u in British English. At various times, all these adjectives have been spelled with a u — except glamorous, which is much more recent than the others and fell into step from its inception — but none has had a history as complex as the honour/honorary pair.

Their story is a muddle. English imported them via the Anglo-Norman onour, itself a respelling of the older French forms onor and onur. The earliest Middle English spelling was anour. The h has never been sounded but was inserted early in its English history by scholars who knew its Latin source was honor, repute or esteem, and felt that its English descendent ought to be spelled to match. Honour, honourable and honorary have been lumbered with that unnecessary initial letter ever since.

Common forms in the 1500s, before standardisation of spelling, were honur, honor and honour. Shakespeare used both honor and honour but preferred honor. Honour became usual in the seventeenth century but the pendulum swung back in the eighteenth. John Ash had it as honor in his New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language in 1775, and commented that it was “a modern but correct spelling, from the Latin.” Less than two decades later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recommended instead that preachers should “Avoid the fashionable impropriety of leaving out the u in many words, as honor, vigor, &c. This is mere childish affectation.” His advice seems to have been prescient, since honour has been so spelled in Britain pretty much ever since.

The story of honorary is of similar confusion. At its inception in the seventeenth century it was spelled without a u. There was a period in the eighteenth century when the u-form became fashionable, weirdly around the time that people were leaving it out of honour. In his Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1733, Nathan Bailey thought the u-less form the better spelling but recommended honourary because it was then more usual. By the century’s end, the fashion had abated again and we’ve spelled honorary without the u ever since.

The spelling reforms of Noah Webster in the US that led to the loss of the u in honour in that country in effect returned that word to a spelling that had been common in England for several centuries. If only he had gone the whole hog and removed the h as well.

Page created 30 Nov. 2013

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Last modified: 30 November 2013.