I had worked hard on a draft speech about alcohol policy for a member of the UK parliament. She glanced at the text which the putatively learned American professor had produced and immediately said “There’s no zed in breathalyse”.
I felt like a fool, or perhaps I should say, a wally.
I will spend half of this year in the UK and half in the US. About half of my writing is done in collaboration with British colleagues for British outlets and the other half is done with American colleagues for American publishers. I have one word processing program, er, programme set to UK spelling and the other to American spelling, but it hasn’t seemed to stop me from screwing up English-language spellings within and across pieces of writing.
American spelling interspersed with British spelling is interpreted by readers in different ways. The admixture can come across as careless, ignorant or (in America anyway) pretentious, but in no case does it increase the reader’s respect for the writer. Yet stamping it out entirely is more difficult than one might think. Whilst it is cognitively easy when shifting between entire languages to revert to consistent use of one’s own (e.g., after a week in another country in which your native tongue is not spoken), keeping national spelling nuances consistent within a language is a chore. And my transatlantic friends tell me it is harder now than ever due to email, in which the same queue may contain consecutive messages that cue you to spell the same words in different ways.
Further, I have quirks about certain spellings seeming to look and sound right. “OrientATed” sounds clumsy to me — why a confusing extra beat in a word that is about understanding where one is? So I never include that extra AT unless I am playing close attention on a British-targeted piece. “Grey” felt correct to me even before I had lived in England for the first time. The “ey” of “grey” just somehow seems to capture a softly lighted foggy morning better than does the “ay” of “gray”, which sounds like someone voting in the affirmative. I instinctively like the z in “analyze”. Analyze means to cut things apart, bringing to mind the rasp of a saw…zzzzzz. “Civilised” connotes gentleness, for which the harsh tear of a z sounds inappropriate and a soft s feels condign.
I can’t defend any of these reactions and the embarassing errors they engender, other than than by noting that most people seem to have similar tics now and then, even when offered only one possible spelling for a word. Children for example, when their spelling of a word is corrected for the first time, will sometimes protest “but it looks wrong that way”. As a second-grader it seemed to me intuively much more sensible to write “the bird flu” than “the bird flew”. Of course I learnt that was incorrect, but a few years ago when the “bird flu epidemic” was blasted across every newspaper headline, the 8 year old in my heart envisioned an enormous flock of winged creatures fluttering overhead.