Saturday, April 12, 2014

Just how American are the origins of center, scepter and theater, spellingwise?

One of the differences between British and American spelling is between those words that end in -re in British English and -er in American English, such as fibre / fiber. In this post I look at five words ending in -tre / -ter - centre, lustre, mitre, sceptre and theatre.
Talking about the differences between British and American spelling at Oxford Dictionaries, they say:
The differences often come about because British English has tended to keep the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages (e.g. French), while American English has adapted the spelling to reflect the way that the words actually sound when they're spoken.

Oxford Dictionaries

Which I understand to mean that these words entered English with their (for example) French spelling, and were later changed in American English. This change is usually attributed to Noah Webster, and especially to his An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. So I was rather surprised when I came across an instance of theater in a British book from the seventeenth century.

A note on the 'clippings'

You can click on any of the 'clippings' to go to their source at Google Books, even on the rare occasions where it shows 'Image nor available'.

Older British dictionaries

First stop, Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language from 1755. True enough, here we have theatre, but no mention of theater. And it's the same with centre, lustre, sceptre, although he does have both spellings for one meaning of mitre (the wood joint), but not for its more common meaning of a kind of ecclesiastical hat.
Johnson's may have been the first really comprehensive dictionary, but it was by no means the first English Dictionary. Thirty four years earlier, in his An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, published in 1721, Nathan Bailey listed both forms for centre, lustre and theatre, but only the -re forms for mitre and sceptre:

An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Nathan Bailey, london 1721

Earlier than that, just after the beginning of the eighteenth century, John Kersey had published the Dictionarium Anglo-britannicum, in which only the -er versions were listed for centre, sceptre and theatre, but both for lustre and mitre.

Dictionarium Anglo-britannicum, John Kersey, London 1708

And even earlier still had been Edward Phillip's The New World of Words (1658), which similarly also only listed the -er versions for centre, sceptre and theatre, but both forms for mitre; lustre doesn't appear.

The new world of words, Edward Phillips, London 1658, (revised John Kersey, London 1706)

So the situation for British spelling seems rather more complicated then suggested at Oxford Dictionaries.

Problems with Google Books and Ngram

Google Books is a wonderful resource, but there are obviously big problems with digitising older books, no doubt partly due their typeface, but probably mainly due to their physical condition. So that this:

A Chronicle, Conteyning the Liues of Tenne Emperours of Rome, Bp. Antonio de Guevara, London 1577

Bassianus, with all his army in armour issued forth to beholde them, and he commaunded to bring them selves into a square, to the end, that one by one, shoulde pass before him, of whome he woulde take his choice, and presently after give them armour.
has been digitised as this (a real, if extreme, example):
Zafzianozwt af mie in armour ilkued foxth to heholde them , ntaunded to being them feines into a lquarez_ to yemxthat one by oneubqulde pam: befoxe bwlzqflnhomehe woulde take his choYce and pxefcntly after gute theater-item
and what appears in search results as theater, turns out to be them ar(mour). This obviously heavily skews search results, and I presume is also reflected in Ngram graphs.
Publication dates are also unreliable (there are U.S.Congressional reports shown as being published in the seveteenth century, for example), so it is absolutely vital to be able to look inside the books, which is often not possible, as this page of search results for theater between 1500 and 1600 shows.
So to gauge what spellings might have more common at this time, we have to use other methods.

Samuel Johnson's examples

One way to do this is to look at the examples Dr.Johnson gave in his dictionary, all with -tre endings, and compare them with the originals (or as close to the originals as we can get - and published on the island(s) that would become Great Britain).

Johnson's dictionary - centre

What with both noun and verb, Johnson cites eleven books with twelve examples:
The heavn's themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place.

Shaksp. Troilus and Cressida.

If we frame an image of a round body all of fire, the flame proceeding from it, would diffuse itself every way; so that the cource, serving for the centre there, would be round about an huge sphere of fire and light.

Digby on Bodies

One foot he centred, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profundity obscure.

Milton. Paradise Lost. b vii l 228

By thy each look, and thought, and care, 'tis shown
Thy joys are centred all in me alone.


He may take a range all the world over, and draw in all that wide air and circumference of sin and vice, and centre it in his own breast.


O impudent, regardful of thy own
Whose thoughts are centred on thyself alone!


Where there is no visible truth wherein to centre, errour is as wide as men's fancies, and may wander to eternity.

Decay of Piety

What hopes you had in Diomede, lay down
Our hopes must centre on ourselves alone.

Dryden's Aeneid

The commom acknowledgements of the body will at length centre in him, who appears sincerely to aim at the common benefit.


It was attested by the visible centring of all the old prophecies in the person of Christ, and by the completion of these prophecies since, which he himself uttered.


As God in heav'n
Is centre, yet extends to all; so thou,
Centring, receiv'st from all those orbs.

Par. Lost, b IX

Johnson's Dictionary Online

Let's now look at the originals:

William Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida, William Shakespeare, First Quarto, 1609

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 - 1665)

Digby was a diplomat, courtier and natural philosopher. In 1664 he published Two Treatises, his major work, of which there is a 1645 edition at Google Books. In the whole book there are 36 results for center, and none for centre:

Two Treatises, Sir Kenelm Digby, London 1645

John Milton (1608 - 1674) - Paradise Lost

Johnson gives two extracts. For the first, both in the 1667 original, and in an 1800 edition with a preface by Johnson himself, the spelling is center'd:
In Johnson's second example, which he marks as Book IX, we have both centre and centring. In the original 1667 version, which had ten books, this was in fact in Book VIII (lines 107-109), which became Book IX in the later twelve book version, first published in 1674. In the 1667 version we have center and centring.

Matthew Prior (1664 - 1721)

This comes from the poem Celia to Damon. This 1719 edition has a dedication signed by the poet, so seems pretty close to the original.

Poems on several occasions, Matthew Prior, London 1719

Strangely enough, versions of this poem appearing in anthologies collected and edited by Johnson kept this spelling, for example The works of the English poets, Vol 32, London 1779

Robert South (1634 - 1716)

This quotation is from a sermon, and appears in a collection of sermons first published in 1592; this is from the sixth edition of 1727:

Twelve Sermons, Robert South, London 1727 (6th ed)

John Dryden (1631 - 1700)

There are two citations from Dryden, the first being from his translation of Homer's 'Illias' (Illiad).

Fables Ancient and Modern, John Dryden, london 1700

And the second is from his translation of Virgil's Aeneid:

The Works of the English Poets Vol 19: Virgil, trans. by Dryden, 'with prefaces biographical and critical' by Samuel Johnson, London 1779

Decay of Piety, by Bishop John Fell (1625 - 1686)

The full title being 'The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety':

The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, John Fell, London 1667

Francis Atterbury (1663 - 1732)

Fourteen sermons preach'd on several occasions, Francis Atterbury (bp. of Rochester.), London 1708

Fourteen sermons preach'd on several occasions, Francis Atterbury (bp. of Rochester.), London 1708


Of the twelve instances of centre and its variations that Johnson quotes, in the originals he quotes from there are three instances of center as a noun (none of centre), four of center as a verb (none of centre) and three instances of center'd (and none of centred). The only cases where the spelling Johnson quotes is the same as in the original are two cases of centring.

Johnson's dictionary - lustre

You have one eye left to see some mischief on him.
—Lest it see more prevent it; out, vile gelly; where is thy lustre now?

Shakespeare's King Lear

To the soul, time doth perfection give
And adds fresh lustre to her beauty still.


The scorching sun was mounted high
In all its lustre, to the noonday sky

Addison's Ovid

Pass but some fleeting years and these poor eyes
Where now without a boast some lustre lies.


All nature laughs, the groves are fresh and fair,
The sun's mild lustre warms the vital air.


Ridotta sips, and dances till she see
The doubling lustres dance as quick as she.

Pope's Horace

His ancestors continued about four hunfred years, rather without obscurity, than with any great lustre.


I used to wonder how a man of birth and spirit could endure to be wholly insignificant and obscure in a foreigh country, when he might live with lustre in his own.


Both of us have closed the tenth lustre, and it is high time to determine how we shall play the last act to the farce.

Bolingbroke to Swift

Johnson's Dictionary Online

Apart from Shakespeare, all the originals appear to have had the -re spelling, although it should be noted that the version I've found are all eighteenth century.

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

Ser. Oh I am slaine: my Lord, you haue one eye left
To see some mischefe on him. Oh
Corn. Lest it see more, preuent it; Out vilde gelly:
Where is thy luster now?

Sir John Davies (1569 - 1626)

The British Muse, London 1738

Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719)

The Works, Vol 2, Joseph Addison, London 1722

Matthew Prior (1664 - 1721)

Poems on several occasions, Matthew Prior, London 1719

Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744)

Pastorals 1709

The Works Vol 1, Alexander Pope, London 1736

Imitations of Horace 1733 - 1738

The Works Vol 4, Alexander Pope, London 1753

Sir Henry Wotton (1569 - 1639)

This appears to be from a short account of the life of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, originally printed in 1642. Here, lustre means a period of ten years:

The Harleian Miscellany, Edward Harley Earl of Oxford, London 1746

Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)

This is from a series of pamphlets, The Drapiers Letters, first published 1724-1725

The Drapiers Letters, published in Works, Vol 4, Dublin 1735

Bolingbroke to Swift

This is from a letter written to Swift in 1729, from Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, 1678 - 1751, a leading Tory.

Letters to and from Jonathan Swift, Dublin 1741

Johnson's dictionary - mitre

Nor Pantheus, thee, thy mitre nor the bands
Of awful Phoebus, sav'd from impious hands.


Bishopricks or burning, mitres or faggots, have been the rewards of different persons, according as they pronounced these consecrated syllables, or not.


Johnson's Dictionary Online

Both Johnson's examples appear to have had -re endings in the originals:

John Dryden (1631 - 1700) - Virgil's Aeneis

Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) - The Improvement of the Mind

Johnson's dictionary - sceptre

Nor shall proud Lancaster usurp my right
Nor hold the sceptre in his childish fist.

Shak. Henry VI

Thou sceptre's heir
That this affect'st a sheephook


How best of kings do'st thou a sceptre bear


The sceptre bearers lent
Their free attendance

Chapman's Odyssey

The parliament presented those acts which were prepared by them to the royal sceptre


The court of Rome has, in other instances, so well attested its good managery, that it is not credible crowns and sceptres are conferred gratis.

Decay of Piety

Johnson's Dictionary Online

I can't find Chapman's translation of the Odyssey anywhere, but all the other five citations of Johnson's seem to have first seen the light of day with the -er spelling:

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

Nor shall proud Lancaster vsurpe my right,
Nor hold the Scepter in his childish Fist,
Thou a Scepters heire,
That thus affects a sheepe-hooke?

Project Gutenberg

Ben Jonson 1572 - 1637

Ben Jonson, quoted in The Poetical Register, Giles Jacob, London 1729 (facsimile)

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609 - 1764)

The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon, 1667 (This edition Oxford 1707)

Bishop John Fell (1625 - 1686) - Decay of Piety

The causes of the Decay of christian piety, John Fell, London 1667

Johnson's dictionary - theatre

This wiseand universal theatre,
Presents more woful pageants than the the scene
Wherein we play

Shakesp. As You Like It.

When the boats came within sixty yards of the pillar, they found themselves all bound, yet so as they might go about, so as they all stood as in a theatre beholding the light.


Shade above shade, a woody theatre
of stateliest view.


In the midst of this fair valley stood
A natural theatre, which rising slow
By just degrees o'erlook'd the ground below.


Johnson's Dictionary Online

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

This passage is from As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 6, and comes just before the famous All the world's a stage quote. This is how it appears in the First Folio (1623):
Du Sen. Thou seest, we are not all alone vnhappie:
This wide and vniuersall Theater
Presents more wofull Pageants then the Sceane
Wherein we play in
Ia. All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women, meerely Players;

Internet Shakespeare - Project Gutenberg

Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)

This is from New Atlantis, first published in English in 1627. I can only find two editions published before 1755, in both of which the spelling is theater - The Works of Francis Bacon, Volume III, London 1730 and The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol III, London 1740

John Milton (1608 - 1674)

This is from Book IV of Paradise Lost. In the original 1667 edition, Milton did indeed spell it theatre
There is one book, by the Rev William Smith, who, quoting Milton, spells it as Theater. A Natural History of Nevis ... Cambridge, 1745

John Dryden (1631 - 1700)

Miscellany poems, John Dryden, London 1727 (Dryden publisher)

Total tallies from Johnson's examples

The -er versions predominate for centre, sceptre and theatre, with the -re versions dominant for lustre and mitre. Most of the examples of lustre were quite late - from the eighteenth century.
centre (n)30
centre (v)40

Shakespeare First Folio

Another way is to look at the works of Shakespeare. The First Folio of 1623 is often regarded as the standard version, and is available in one easily searchable page at Project Gutenberg, and can be checked at various sites, listed here.
And this is what we find (there are none for mitre / miter).

center 7 (centre 1)

This whole earth may be bord, and that the Moone
May through the Center creepe, and so displease
Her brothers noonetide, with th'Antipodes.

A Midsummer Nigh't Dream 3:2

Most dear'st, my Collop: Can thy Dam, may't be
Affection? thy Intention stabs the Center.

A Winter's Tale 1:2

Now happy he, whose cloake and center can
Hold out this tempest. Beare away that childe,
And follow me with speed: Ile to the King:

King John 4:3

As many Lynes close in the Dials center:

Henry V 1:2

'Tis you must dig with Mattocke, and with Spade,
And pierce the inmost Center of the earth:

Titus Andronicus

Turne backe dull earth, and find thy Center out.

Romeo and Juliet 2:1

Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeede
Within the Center

Hamlet 2:1

luster 5 (lustre 7)

Of persing a Hogshead, a good luster of conceit in a turph of Earth, Fire enough for a Flint, Pearle enough for a Swine

Love's labour's Lost 4:2

For there is none of you so meane and base,
That hath not Noble luster in your eyes.

Henry V 3:1

You haue added worth vntoo't, and luster,
And entertain'd me with mine owne deuice.

Timon of Athens 1:1

Lest it see more, preuent it; Out vilde gelly:
Where is thy luster now?

King Lear 3:7

Thou art sure to loose: And of that Naturall lucke,
He beats thee 'gainst the oddes. Thy Luster thickens,

Anthony and Cleopatra 2:3

scepter 36 (sceptre 0) - a small sample

The throned Monarch better then his Crowne.
His Scepter shewes the force of temporall power,

The Merchant of Venice 4:1

A Scepter snatch'd with an vnruly hand,
Must be as boysterously maintain'd as gain'd.

King John 3:3

As he is but my fathers brothers sonne;
Now by my Scepters awe, I make a vow,

Richard II 1:1

Which shewes me many more: and some I see,
That two-fold Balles, and trebble Scepters carry.

Macbeth 4:1

The Kings of Mede, and Licoania,
With a more larger List of Scepters

theater 5 (theatre 1)

This wide and vniuersall Theater
Presents more wofull Pageants then the Sceane
Wherein we play in

As You Like It 2:7

By heauen, these scroyles of Angiers flout you kings,
And stand securely on their battelments,
As in a Theater, whence they gape and point
At your industrious Scenes and acts of death.

King John 2:1

As in a Theater, the eyes of men
After a well grac'd Actor leaues the Stage,
Are idlely bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:

Richard II 5:2

That done, repayre to Pompeyes Theater.

Julius Caesar

The censure of the which One, must in your allowance o'reway a whole Theater of Others

Hamlet 2: 2

Other Early Modern English writers at Google Books

A look at other well-known writers from this period (I was looking at 1500 - 1650) brings up quite a few examples of -er spelling.
Some of these come from various stages of the literary argument between Thomas Nashe ahd Gilbert Harvey, which you can read more about at


The Last Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Phillip Sydney, London 1591 (reprint Cambridge 1922)

Rosalynde: or Euphues Golden Legacie, Thomas Lodge, London 1592 (facsimile)

Prosopopeia, Thomas Lodge, London 1596

Have with You to Saffron-Walden, Thomas Nashe, London 1596

Devotions Vpon Emergent Occasion, John Donne, London 1624


The Faerie Queene, Book V Canto XI, Edmund Spenser (this edition London 1839)

The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, (reprinted Cambridge 1912)

Englsnds Helicon, John Payne Collier, London 1600

Pierces Supererogation, Gabriel Harvey, John Payne Collier, London 1593 (facsimile)

Partheneia Sacra, London 1633 (?)


A Display of Heraldrie, John Gwillim, London 1623 (?)

The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth, Edward baron Herbert of Cherbury, London 1649

A Collection of Speeches, Sir Edward Dering, London 1642

Comus and other poems, John Milton, 1645 (Cambridge 1906)


Twenty-seven Lectures, Edward Dering, London 1590

The Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse, Robert Greene, 1591 - 1599 (reprinted privately London 1881 - 1886)

The New Testament, from The Geneva Bible 1557 (facsimile reprint London c.1840)

A Conference about the Next Succession of the Crown of Ingland, Robert Parsons, London, 1594


Pierces Supererogation, Gabriel Harvey, London 1593 (facsimile)

Foure letters confuted, Thomas Nash, in Strange Newes, London, 1593

The Last Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, reprinted Cambridge 1922

St. Augustine of the Citie of God, London 1610

Theatre Royal or Theater Royal?

The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, john Dryden, London 1673

Alcibiades, a tragedy, Thomas Otway, London 1687

Although to be honest, most references to the King's theatres in the restoration period appear to have the -re spelling.

Final thoughts

Given the evidence from early dictionaries, the originals of Johnson's examples, and from Shakespeare and other writers of the calibre of Sydney Smith and Edmund Spencer from the Early Modern English period, it seems to me very likely that the -er spellings, at least for centre, scepter and theatre, were dominant until the restoration period.
Sometime during the second half of the seventeenth century, -re spellings became more popular, perhaps because of increased scholarship and interest in etymology, perhaps because many had spent time in exile in France during the interregnum.
The final nail in the coffin for the -er sellings was no doubt their complete absence from Johnson's dictionary, which was enormously influential - many people would have shorter, cheaper versions, for example.
So my final thought would be - did Noah Webster know about these earlier versions, as seems likely, or was he working from first principles?


Peter Tan said...

Fascinating. So Webster was perhaps less innovative than he has been given credit for! Mind you, he also back-pedalled on his suggestions like 'thum' for 'thumb' or 'fether'.

Did you also look at the -or/-our words (colour, honour, favour, etc.)? I suspect the picture is also similar. Dickens is known to have favoured the -or spellings.

Warsaw Will said...

First of all, thanks for making the number of followers up to the magic 100.

I think Webster back-pedalled (or was forced to do so) on quite a number of his intended reforms.

I hadn't thought about 'colour' etc - maybe that's a subject for another post. I'm biased of course, but I don't actually see how 'or' is any nearer the actual sound /ə(r)/, than 'our', but I suppose it does have one less letter. Me, I prefer 'our'.

Warsaw Will said...

@Peter Tan - Wikipedia deals pretty well with history of 'or/our' here

Peter Tan said...

Thanks, Will. I couldn't quite get the link to work, but I assume it is to this that you're referring:

Very interesting.

Warsaw Will said...

That's it. Don't know quite what went wrong there.

novak dj said...

Am here to testify what this great spell caster done for me. i never believe in spell casting, until when i was was tempted to try it. i and my wife have been having a lot of problem living together, she will always not make me happy because she have fallen in love with another man outside our relationship, i tried my best to make sure that my wife leave this woman but the more i talk to her the more she makes me fell sad, so my marriage is now leading to divorce because she no longer gives me attention. so with all this pain and agony, i decided to contact this spell caster to see if things can work out between me and my wife again. this spell caster who was a man told me that my wife is really under a great spell that she have been charm by some magic, so he told me that he was going to make all things normal back. he did the spell on my wife and after 5 days my wife changed completely she even apologize with the way she treated me that she was not her self, i really thank this man his name is Dr ose he have bring back my wife back to me i want you all to contact him who are having any problem related to marriage issue and relationship problem he will solve it for you. his email is  he is a man and his  great. wish you good time.
He cast spells for different purposes like
(1) If you want your ex back.
(2) if you always have bad dream
(3) You want to be promoted in your office.
(4) You want women/men to run after you.
(5) If you want a child.
(6) You want to be rich.
(7) You want to tie your husband/wife to be yours forever.
(8) If you need financial assistance.
(10) is the only answer to that your problem of winning the lottery

Contact him today on or whatsapp him on +2348136482342.

Ric Clayton said...

I really want to thank Dr Emu for saving my marriage. My wife really treated me badly and left home for almost 3 month this got me sick and confused. Then I told my friend about how my wife has changed towards me. Then she told me to contact Dr Emu that he will help me bring back my wife and change her back to a good woman. I never believed in all this but I gave it a try. Dr Emu casted a spell of return of love on her, and my wife came back home for forgiveness and today we are happy again. If you are going through any relationship stress or you want back your Ex or Divorce husband you can contact his whatsapp +2347012841542 or email website: Https:// Https://