The emotional question and history of a difference over spelling
Disputes over how to spell “theater” happen with surprising frequency in my world. The issue recently came up in a discussion of the signs in our city’s theater district. Typically, as the argument flares, the two sides promote their view with militant ardor, neither side offering any reasoned evidence to support its entrenched opinion, beyond personal comfort and preference. Sometimes people assert total fictions, arguing things like “One spelling refers to the art, the other to the building,” which is untrue.
The fact is that people are oddly attached to the way they spell that word, and there are reasons the discussion is so emotional. The history of the spelling is actually very instructive.
When Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, his effort served to standardize American spellings for numerous words. This was not done arbitrarily. The push for spelling reform was a continuation of the fight for political independence from Great Britain and the advancement of American democracy.
As a spelling reformer and political activist, Webster argued that complex English spellings impeded literacy among working-class people, especially immigrants. He associated unencumbered social advancement with the idea that all men are created equal. His dictionary was part of the great American experiment.
Guided by this principle, Webster established distinctly American spellings consistent with phonetics, like “color” instead of “colour”; “center” instead of “centre”; “honor” instead of “honour”; “gray” instead of “grey”; “counselor” instead of “counsellor”; and so forth.
He also determined that the American spelling of “theatre” would be “theater.”
The newly democratic nation quickly and permanently adopted many of Webster’s standardized American spellings with remarkable unanimity. Some they rejected: “soop,” for example, did not replace “soup”; “ake” did not replace “ache”; “spunge” did not replace “sponge.” But American spellings for numerous words derived from French, Latin, and Greek that end in “-re” were enthusiastically adopted, including spellings for “centre,” “calibre,” “fibre,” “goitre,” “litre,” “lustre,” “manoeuvre,” “meagre,” “metre,” “mitre,” “sabre,” “saltpetre,” “sombre,” and “spectre.”
The story of “theater,” however, is unique.
The American theater at this time was still dominated by British actors and managers. In fact, the first great American-born classical actress, Charlotte Cushman, did not make her professional debut until 1835, seven years after the appearance of Webster’s dictionary. Her mentor, the British tragic actor William Charles Macready, urged her to refine her art in England.
Many of these British theater practitioners and their Anglophile protégés stubbornly maintained the British spelling of “theater,” even while adopting American spellings of other words. Of course, they had a vested interest in keeping the American public convinced of their artistic superiority, especially with competition from a new generation of American-born actors on the horizon.
In addition, conscious of the stigma associated with their profession at the time, some thought the British spelling sounded classier and more respectable, and so, like retail stores that call themselves “shoppes” in order to put on pretentious airs of “olde worlde” sophistication, many theaters sought to promote an air of genteel refinement by calling themselves “theatres.”
To this day, many American theaters use the spelling “theatre” in their names.
Nonetheless, despite these promotional ploys, the prevailing American spelling remains “theater.” In fact, lexicographers seem quite decided on the issue.
Garner’s Modern American Usage labels “theater” the American spelling, “theatre” the British. The Associated Press Stylebook similarly requires “theater,” unless the proper name of an institution departs from that spelling. The Chicago Manual of Style uses “theater.”
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