Etymology Spelling Usage

Theater (or theatre) piece

Q: I review “theatre.” Or should I say “theater”? Which do you prefer, and why? Actually, why is there a choice at all?

A: There’s been a lot of nonsense written about “theater” and “theatre”—that one is for movies and the other is for plays; or that one refers to a building and the other to an art form; or that one spelling is lowbrow while the other is refined.

But these are merely variant spellings of the same noun.

“Theatre” is the only spelling now recognized in Britain. “Theater” is the traditional American spelling, but “theatre” is now equally acceptable in the US, according to standard dictionaries.

Personally, we prefer “theater,” but you’re free to make your own choice. No matter how you spell it, the meaning is the same.

We suspect that some Americans lean toward “theatre” because of its British associations (just as the spelling “colour” appeals to Anglophile cosmetics manufacturers). In other words, it has snob appeal.

The truth is that the spelling of this word has fluctuated over the centuries, and “theatre” hasn’t always been the preference in the British Isles.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre.” But, the OED adds, “from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater.”

So Chaucer, writing in Middle English in the late 1300s, used “theatre.” Two hundred years later, Shakespeare and Spenser used “theater.”

Why the change?

It helps to know that the word is ultimately derived from the Latin theatrum, and that its spellings in other languages are roughly divided along linguistic lines—Romance versus Germanic.

In Romance languages, the final syllable is spelled with –tr rather than -ter. For example, teatro in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; teatru in Romanian; and théâtre in French.

The word was teatre in Old French, and theatre in 12th- to 13th-century French (a spelling that, in light of the Norman Conquest, may have influenced the Middle English).

In Germanic languages, on the other hand, the word ends in -ter. For example, theater in German and Dutch, and teater in Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. So it’s not surprising that English, a Germanic language, would have adopted the “ter” spelling at some point.

So far so good. But then why did the British switch back to “theatre” in the 1700s?

At the time, all things French were fashionable among the English upper classes. Besides, French became established as the language of diplomacy early in that century. Et voilà—French spellings crept into British usage.

As the OED says, “between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.” The question mark seems to indicate that it’s more likely the Colonists kept the old spelling.

We included a section about French-influenced British spellings in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

As we wrote, British and American preferences today reflect those of the language’s two great lexicographers—the Englishman Samuel Johnson in the 18th century and the American Noah Webster in the early 19th:

“Many of the words that are now spelled one way here and another there had multiple spellings once upon a time. When the two lexicographers wrote their influential dictionaries, Webster chose one and Johnson another. But the story isn’t as simple as that. Johnson adopted many Frenchified spellings that had been introduced in Britain in the eighteenth century. But Webster often stuck with older spellings, the ones the Colonists had brought from England in the seventeenth century.

“Webster wanted, among other things, to purge English of words ‘clothed with the French livery’ and rid spelling of the ‘egregious corruptions’ imposed by Francophiles. He considered the eleventh-century conquest of Britain by French-speaking Norman princes the ‘dark ages of English.’ Johnson, on the other hand, wanted to preserve the spelling of his day, even if ‘it is in itself inaccurate, and tolerated rather than chosen.’ He was well aware of the Gallic corruptions but chose not to fiddle with them ‘without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change.’ ”

So we can largely blame two cranky old men for the fact that we have both “theatre” and “theater” today.

Something similar happened with other “er” words (“center/centre,” “fiber/fibre,” “luster/lustre,” and others). The Colonists took the “-er” endings with them to the New World, but British writers shifted their allegiance to French spellings.

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