Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Pains

With widespread homage to indolence, Americans like to celebrate Labor Day by lolling at the beach, lying in hammocks, and slurping beer on their verandahs. This annual observance was established nationally by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, following the killing of several workers by the U. S. military and U. S. marshals during what was known as the Pullman Strike against railways. 

Cleveland purposely avoided choosing May 1, the more common international workers day, lest it stir up memories of the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886, which occurred around that date. 

In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and other countries of the British Commonwealth, the May 1 observance is known as Labour Day.

The absence of a u in the American spelling can be traced to that old fussbudget Noah Webster, who wrote The American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. He saw no need of that useless u in words like labour, colour, neighbour, favour, honour, and flavour—so he got rid of it.

That pesky -our came into English from the snooty Normans, whose Frenchified spelling du jour was thought (by the Normans) to have an elegant je ne sais quoi, even though the original Latin words on which they were based got along just fine with a plain -or.  It was the 1755 dictionary of Dr. Samuel Johnson, a fussbudget of even higher standing than Webster, that perpetuated all those -our spellings.  Johnson even insisted on governour, horrour, tenour, and terrour, which are now thought to be in errour, even by the Brits.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou engages in as little labo(u)r as is humanly possible.  Certainly, very little of it was required to produce this scrawl:

            You work and work           
            Till you’re berserk,
            And then you reach retirement.
            Relax, you’re told,
            This age is gold,
            To rest is your requirement.
            “The best, you see,
            Is yet to be”—
            I wonder what that liar meant?

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