Of all the written comments I have received on papers throughout my years of post-secondary education, one of my very favorites is from my college linguistics course. The professor, a priest from England, had circled a word — behaviour — and drawn a line to the margin, where he had penned: “What’s this British spelling lurking here?”
It was not a grade issue, and he never followed up with his concern or curiosity. As it happened, it was the only notice I received in my four years at a midwestern Catholic university that my careful eschewal of standard American English in favor of British spelling had caught the eye of any of my professors. And I was pretentious enough at that point that, even had a professor taken issue with it, I would probably have politely heard their concern, then carried on with my affectation unchecked.
But why was I consciously — and conscientiously — employing British English? Well, a lot of factors led me to it. It is certainly no secret that my favorite author (then and now) was a Englishman; Tolkien’s work was probably my first exposure to British English. Perhaps as a result, I developed a keen attraction to the -our and -ise endings that stood out to me as the defining differences between the two conventions. Later in my teens, when my urge to rebellion would take the form of a disdain for all things American, from popular representative government to any literature penned on these shores, my literary diet was drawn solely from authors from across the pond.
I was thrilled to be able to afford, with a significant portion of the gift money from my high school graduation, a brand-new copy of the two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to take off to college with me (although I was trying to get used to saying that I was “going to university”). It was a delicious treasure of words, and also included an unexpectedly-helpful feature: it clearly marked the variant US spellings with a damning asterisk, so I could easily spot them and steer well clear.
When I acquired my first computer, the most important setting for each application was switching the spelling options to “UK English” wherever possible. My ostentatious Anglophilia also expanded to include time and date conventions, as well (e.g. 15 May 1999 and 1.17a). I sustained all this elaborate counter-cultural affectation throughout four years of college and well beyond. The print issues of The Floating Egg are thoroughly British in their spelling, and so was the web version for a considerable time, as a perusal through the archives on this site will confirm.
It was in the first part of 2008, as I was urgently preparing a condensed version of my memoir project for submission to a competition, that it occurred to me that now, perhaps, it was time to consider returning to American spelling. It was a bit of a wrench, but it made sense to do so at least for the contest draft. In the months that followed, I continued to use the spellings which came most naturally to me — those officially current in the UK — but they increasingly felt less comfortable on the page in front of me, forced, contrived. By the time I started my MFA workshop in January of 2009, I made a firm decision: I was going to be an American writer, and that was going to mean writing in American English. I wasn’t a pretentious twenty-something twit anymore. I wanted to use my precious energy crafting true words of my own, not worrying over keeping two different spelling traditions current and distinct in my head. It was liberating to let go of that long-standing habit, and to embrace a new simplicity in my writing.
But then I moved to Canada. While nothing official has been said to me on this point, my natural impulse is, perversely, not to stick to my newly-acquired American spelling, but to switch everything over to Canadian English. This is a tricky project, since the dividing line is much less clear than the British conventions I had spent so long cultivating. At first glance things look British here, too. But it seems that proximity to the US, or perhaps a certain frontier weariness, has eroded the distinctly British character of the language. My old friends -our and -ise are much in evidence, but I have yet to encounter tyre or centre.
And so I am more confused than ever before. I find myself reflexively typing grey and realise again. My thoughtful intention to re-Americanize my usage still stands in my mind as the genuine and authentic course for me. Yet like a heroin addict, the old habit comes back far more easily than it was shaken off, and with a new and greater intensity. The other day I had a strong urge to start using the spelling connexion, which strikes American eyes as sub-literate, something we would expect to see in a text message or a teen’s Facebook status, but not in proper writing. Sharing in this instinct, I had previously resisted adopting the -xion ending (reflexion is another example) even in my most pretentious prosaic displays. Now, I do not what will become of me.