By Gareth Edwards

Thursday 12 April 2012

How American Spelling Happened, and Gravity Meters

More answers to your questions from the blog that attempts to find meaning in the myriad complexities of human experience without the aid of a big bottle of gin. And sometimes with...

Nance Why do Americans drop the “u” when they spell words like neighbour, colour, and humour, but leave it in other words like contour and velour?

The American Declaration of Independence (or as it was known in Britain “Fine, See If We Care”) was followed by immensely difficult years for the newly-formed US government. Up to that point the erstwhile colonies had imported all letters of the alphabet from Britain, but in an attempt to undermine the prestige and name of the newly-formed USA in 1776 the British banned all trans-Atlantic trade in the letter U. The Americans were determined to keep the U in pride of place in their new nation’s name and so made sacrifices elsewhere, salvaging non-essential “u”s from words like “honour”, “harbour” and “elephaunt” (a usage that eventually became adopted back in Britain too) to keep the new national sobriquet intact.  As the blockade continued patriotic mums became “moms” and farmers exchanged their ploughs for plows while ukulele players took up the banjo. Eventually however the masses complained of this hand-to-moth existence, and there was even talk of a second revoltion so that by winter 1789 the Fonding Fathers had to face up to the possibility of becoming a Nited States of America. But as grim preparations were made tomake do without the letter U altogether and George Washington prepared a sombre State of the Onion address a French schooner, L’Ululation, carrying several tons of fresh letter “u”s wrapped in the finest contoured velour broke the British blockade of the ports.  The Americans fell on the vowel-rich cargo and the letter flooded back into the New World. But the years of shortage had left their scars and American spelling was never the same again.

Truf Why does my mother get hiccups from vodka, but doesn't get them from whisky?

It may be that your mother drinks vodka, but doesn’t drink whisky.

Nance What is the correct civic response to make when an alarm from a parked car in front of my house goes off at 2 am and lasts for more than 30 minutes?
As is so often the case, it’s all about boundaries. The car wants attention, but you also have to think about your needs. Try going out to the car and telling it gently but firmly that night time is a time for being quiet. By all means tell the car you love it, but don’t try to pick it up, just make sure it’s safe and go quietly back into the house. Do this every fifteen minutes or so and eventually the car will learn to settle itself or its battery will run out.

suk_pannu I'm paying hand over fist for my electricity, but I seem to be getting magnetism and gravity for free. Can you confirm the government has no plans to privatise other fundamental particles or forces?
In the name of our fragile planet, reconsider your attitude! Electricity charges are an essential way of controlling people’s consumption of a limited resource. If electricity were free it would be used inefficiently, it would be wasted, it would be squandered. And yet you seem perfectly content to help yourself to magnetism and gravity like there’s no tomorrow. Look around your home. There are hundreds of ways you could cut down on usage. Is your furniture just standing on the floor? Don’t waste gravity keeping it there. Strap it down! How is your shopping list fixed to your fridge? A magnet? BUY SOME GLUE! The sooner every home has gravity and magnetism meters the sooner people like you will get real about passing the forces of physics on unharmed to the next generation.

Do keep the questions coming. To question is to be human. Except during the important bit of expository dialogue in Homeland, when to question is to spoil it for people who are trying to concentrate.


  1. If Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady, could Magneto have defeated her?

  2. Why do cats catch and release mice before they finally dispatch them, and leave them as "gifts" on the kitchen floor (or inside my shoes)?

  3. Dear Sir-
    Most emails I now receive begin with "Hey there," "Hi," or "Fantastic new offer." What happened to formal salutations?

  4. What is the best method for removing a red wine stain from a white cashmere sweater?

  5. What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?