“Ae” spelling

I was tempted to categorize this as a “Faux NOOB” because the ae combination in such forms as orthopaedics, paediatrics and archaeology derive from ancient Greek and aren’t specifically British. But until a recent pronounced uptick, they have traditionally been found much more commonly in Britain than in the U.S. Thus I feel they represent a proper NOOB.

I do, however, enthusiastically put them in a new category I’ve just created: “Commerce.” That’s because no one (or no American) on his or her own would think to write paediatrician rather than pediatrician. Rather, the ae form in this word and in orthopaedic appears on every billboard and print advertisement I see these days because some ad-person thought they sounded classy, official and vaguely British. (Remind me to retroactively put bespoke and stockist in this category as well.)

A special case is encyclopaedia. According to the OED, that spelling would have become “obsolete” in the late 19th century were it not used by the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” and other reference works. “Britannica,” of course, not only uses the a and e but famously connects them in a fused character called a ligature. Interestingly, while ae is still very much of the operation’s trade name, there appears to be some movement toward losing the a, as in this Google search result:

The only person who pronounces the ae in encyclopaedia is Ted on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” He’s routinely ragged for this by his friends, including Robin, who in one “intervention” tells him:

Dear Ted: It’s “encyclopedia,” not “encyclopaedia.” You always pronounce things in the most pretentious way possible, and it makes you sound douchy, and not “douchay.”


Hold your fire! I know that the spelling “advisor” is not British. However, people think it’s British (someone even said that exact thing at a faculty meeting last week, unprompted by me), so I present the post below. (It originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.) And I have devised for it a new category, “Faux NOOBs.” Additional nominations welcome.

Quick quiz: What do you call a person whose job is to offer advice? Or, rather, how do you spell that job?

If you said advisor, you would be in accordance with 100 percent of my students; with the practice of my university and I believe most others in this country; with the popular Web site TripAdvisor; with Merrill Lynch, which sends to its customers a publication called Merrill Lynch Advisor; and, in fact, with the English-speaking world generally.

If you answered adviser, you would be right. Or, to be more precise, right from the perspective of The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and history. Adviser first appeared in 1611, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was formed by appending the suffix –er (in this case, merely the letter r) to the verb advise, along the lines of such similar constructions as baker, candlestick-maker and, well, not butcher, which comes from the Old French bouchier, but teacher, seeker, and beekeeper.

The OED’s first citation of a different spelling is a periodical that first came out in 1899 and was called, simply, Advisor. The dictionary doesn’t specify its country of origin, but the new spelling became sufficiently popular in the United States that American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, mocked it in 1931: “Following the advent and acceptance in this country of advisors, newspapers now occasionally mention debators.” (There are, of course, -or nouns for occupations and identifications, but they are usually not formed from verbs: doctor, debtor, proctor, author, executor, curator, donor.)

The chart below is a Google Ngram showing the comparative frequency, in books published in America between 1900 and 2008, of adviser (blue line) and advisor (red line). The -or spelling pulls ahead in about 1999. (In Britain, -er is still ahead though its lead is fading.)

Ngram’s database, as I say, consists of books, which tend to stick with traditional usages longer than other forms of writing do. The Internet itself gives a more accurate snapshot of current usage, and if you stage a Google Fight between the two spellings, -or blows -er away, by 23.7 million to 5.7 million.

How to explain the dominion of advisor? First, it sounds fancy (because, I conjecture, the real –or nouns have longer pedigrees than the formed-from-verbs -er ones). Second, it sounds British. And when it comes to language in our country, that is an unbeatable combination.


The color or colour between black and white. U.S. spelling has traditionally been gray, and British (or at least modern British) grey. The OED notes:

With regard to the question of usage, an inquiry by Dr. Murray in Nov. 1893 elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later English lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray . In answer to questions as to their practice, the printers of The Times stated that they always used the form gray ; Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes always used grey ; other eminent printing firms had no fixed rule. Many correspondents said that they used the two forms with a difference of meaning or application: the distinction most generally recognized being that grey denotes a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray . Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown …. In the twentieth century, grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States.

I would definitely agree with the last statement. The New York Times used gray more than 195,000 times between 1851 and 1980, and grey only 32,255. (The statistics are complicated by the fact that both spellings constitute a common last name.) However, my (American college) students almost unanimously choose grey. I hypothesize that this reflects the popularity of Grey Goose Vodka, designed for the American market and introduced in 1997, and of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” which debuted in 2005. (The book to which the title refers is “Gray’s Anatomy.”)

Visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a grey and misty morning, the President told thousands of mourners: “They fell so we might have the freedom, which too many of us take for granted, but at least on this day we know is still our greatest blessing.” (Time, May 29, 1995)/ The hills are shedding their summer gold for their fall grey. (San Jose Mercury News, October 13, 2011)