The Existence of Multiple Spellings for Common Words

Posted on November 8, 2019

There is a common assumption that there exists only a single universally correct way to spell words in the English language. However, the reality is that there is no definitive authority that governs English spelling. Like all living languages, English undergoes changes over time, resulting in numerous regional variations in spelling.


As one might expect, this leads to occasional confusion. Throughout history, heated debates have arisen over the proper spelling of certain words. One particularly famous (or infamous) example is the case of Noah Webster, an American lexicographer who "simplified" spelling in his dictionary by removing the letter "u" from words such as "colour" (becoming "color") and "neighbour" (becoming "neighbor"). He also replaced "s" with "z" in words like "analyse" (becoming "analyze").

This decision sparked not only differences between American and UK spellings, but also debates over the spellings of words used regularly in American English. Read on for some of the most perplexing examples and see if you have a preference for either spelling.


In November 1893, Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, investigated whether Brits were more inclined to spell the color as "gray" or "grey." The results proved to be inconclusive.

At that time, a majority of people in the UK leaned towards spelling it as "grey." However, certain printers, including the esteemed Times, favored the spelling "gray." Interestingly, there were even individuals who argued that "grey" represented a lighter shade than "gray." While some clarity has emerged since Murray's investigation, variations persist on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the 20th century, "grey" had become the preferred spelling in the UK, while "gray" was more commonly used in the US. The word itself originates from Old English, and there is no overwhelming evidence to determine which spelling should be considered "more" correct.

Therefore, in conclusion, depending on whether you reside on the American or British side of the Atlantic, both "gray" and "grey" can be deemed correct.


The exact origins of the word "okay," sometimes spelled as "OK" or even "okeh" at one point, remain unknown. Various theories exist to explain its etymology, just as there are different ways to spell the word itself.

Typically, an acronym is represented by a word in all capital letters, such as OK, implying that each letter stands for a word. For instance, US stands for United States. However, the true meaning of the letters in OK has been lost over time. In 1838, lexicographer Allen Walker Read suggested that OK stood for "Oll Korrect" or "Ole Kurreck" as part of a trend of intentionally misspelled words. However, this claim is difficult to verify.

Others, including President Woodrow Wilson, attributed the word to the Choctaw language, specifically the term "okeh," which means "it is so." They spelled it accordingly.

In any case, when the word first appeared in writing in 1839, it was spelled OK. However, during the 20th century, many publications started using the slightly more refined spelling of okay. The choice between these two spellings is subjective, and there is no definitive answer. The Associated Press suggests using OK, while the Chicago Manual prefers okay.


Ultimately, either of these spellings is perfectly acceptable.

Woah (or whoa) is an onomatopoeic word, meaning it is written to imitate a sound.

Originally, it was a sound used to direct or halt farm animals and horses. When the word was first transcribed in the 19th century, it was mostly spelled as whoa. According to Google Ngram results, this spelling remains the most prevalent.

However, by at least 1984, woah started appearing on early internet forums as an alternative to whoa. In the 1990s, its usage became more prevalent in printed materials.


It's important to note that while both spellings have significant usage, most dictionaries consider woah to be "incorrect."

Just like how both jelly-filled and chocolate-glazed variations of these fried treats are delicious, both doughnut and donut are acceptable spellings of the word. Doughnut is the older of the two spellings and is more directly related to the dessert's composition, which is primarily made of dough.

The simplified spelling of donut is an American invention that emerged later. Its popularity received a boost when Dunkin' Donuts opened in 1950.


Therefore, while doughnut remains more commonly used, both spellings are perfectly acceptable.

Much like the debate between grey and gray, the flier and flyer variation has been ongoing for centuries.

A flier—or flyer—may refer to numerous things. It can indicate an object or individual that engages in flight. Alternatively, in the United States at least, it can denote a small piece of paper containing information. These are merely two examples of the word's many meanings.

During the mid-1400s, when the term was first coined, it was spelled as either flier or flyer. This uncertainty in spelling has persisted over time. In the 19th century, both flier and flyer were equally popular, but nowadays, flyer is the overwhelmingly preferred spelling.


Regardless, both variations are considered acceptable spellings of this word.

A significant spelling divide across the Atlantic concerns the terms theatre and theater. The spelling of this word was formerly undecided.

Around 1380, it was often spelled as theatre or teatre. In the UK from 1500 to 1700, theater was the preferred spelling. (Shakespeare spelled it that way.) However, theatre once again became more common in the UK during the 19th century. In contrast, in the US, the spelling theater prevailed, which remains the case today.

Therefore, whether one spells it as theatre or theater largely depends on which side of the Atlantic they find themselves on. Nevertheless, the spelling theatre can still be encountered in the US, and it is often considered a slightly more sophisticated way of writing the word.


When you wake up in the morning, do you don a T-shirt or a tee-shirt?

T-shirts are named as such due to their resemblance to the capital letter T. Consequently, T-shirt is a more intuitive spelling.

By the 1940s, tee-shirt had emerged as an acceptable alternative spelling for T-shirt. However, it remains significantly less popular than the original version. Additionally, the Chicago Manual and other style guides typically recommend the spelling T-shirt.

Nevertheless, we are sticking with our favorite statement in this presentation: both spellings are correct.


When you go to bed, do you don pajamas or pyjamas? Once again, the answer tends to depend on whether or not you reside in the British Commonwealth—except Canada.

The term pyjama originates from the English transliteration of the Hindustani pay-jama, a term used to depict loose trousers fastened with a drawstring commonly worn in India. When the British ruled India, Europeans embraced pyjamas as nighttime attire. However, when pyjamas arrived in the United States in 1845, they adopted the spelling pajama. While pajama remains the preferred spelling in the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other Commonwealth nations usually spell it as pyjama.

Nevertheless, Canadians appear to be divided on the pyjama/pajama distinction, potentially influenced by their American neighbors, according to Google Trends.

If you find it difficult to choose between these spellings, you have the option of a simpler alternative: PJs or jammies.


Mic, short for microphone, is a widely used abbreviation. According to the New York Times, the term mike emerged around 1926 as a playful nickname. The spelling mic became popular around 1961. However, this spelling can be misleading since it appears to be pronounced as "mick," which has negative connotations. Additionally, the Times points out that bicycle is not abbreviated as bic but as bike.

Over the years, there has been no consensus on whether mike or mic is the correct abbreviation. Even the AP Stylebook has been indecisive on this matter. However, mic has experienced a resurgence in recent times. Both spellings, mic or mike, are considered correct as long as you maintain consistency.

And that concludes our mic (or mike) drop moment.

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