Monday, March 1, 2010

A Noble Endeavour

Flush with success, the American space shuttle Endeavour recently concluded a mission to install a new $19-million toilet on the space station.  You’d think Joe the Plumber might have been able to do the job for a few bucks less. Besides this commendable step toward better hygiene, one other notable feature of the mission was the spelling of the shuttle’s name--in the British manner with a “u” between the “o” and the “r,” instead of the good old plain American Endeavor.  What’s going on here, a British takeover of the American space program, requiring our astronauts to use a loo?

As it happens, the orbiter was named, in a contest for schoolchildren, in honor (or perhaps in honour) of the British ship, the HMS Endeavour, on which Captain James Cook sailed around the world from 1768 to 1771, discovering a lot of places that the English didn’t know existed.  This spelling of Endeavour confounds some Americans, including NASA itself, which has been known to misspell the name of its own spacecraft.   

That settles that question.  But it leaves unanswered why the British and American spellings differ on so many words ending on an unstressed –or or, alternatively –our—like color, neighbor, favor, flavor, and labor.  Blame it on Noah Webster, who wrote The American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Noah, described by Bill Bryson as  “a severe, correct, humorless, religious, temperate man who was not easy to like,” didn’t see the need of that useless “u” in all those words, so he got rid of it. 

Even before Webster, the spelling of such words was lackadaisical.  In Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he mentions “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” but the final version makes it “honor.”

The -our spelling came into English words from the snooty Normans, whose Frenchified spelling was considered to have an elegant je ne sais quoi, even though the original Latin words on which they were based were spelled “-or.”  It was the 1755 dictionary by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a man whose many eccentricities have subsequently been ascribed to Tourette Syndrome, that perpetuated all those -our spellings, even in words like governour, errour, horrour, tenour and terrour, which by now have drifted back to their original Latinate spellings, even in Britain.

In his idealistic youth, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou dreamt of being an astronaut, but unavoidable circumstances put an end to his endeavor, as he explains:

            I’d like to travel into space
            And walk upon the moon.
            And meet an alien face-to-face--
            Perhaps we could commune.

            And then I’d orbit ‘round the earth,
            I’d be so overjoyed
            To circumnavigate its girth
            And dodge an asteroid.

            On second thought, a rocket trip
            Can wait another day.
            Right now I think I’ll sit and sip
            Just one more Chardonnay.

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