Get with the spelling program(me)

Posted by on October 14, 2013

© STOCKBYTE / DIGITAL STOCKSince British English and American English went their slightly separate ways, spelling has been one of the main ways we tell the two families of dialects apart, at least in writing. Sometimes the spelling differences are obvious and easy to remember (US aluminum, color, tire vs. UK aluminium, colour, tyre), but not always. Program(me) might seem like one of the simpler ones: UK programme, US program, right? But it’s a bit trickier than that. Present-day usage is not so uniform, and the history is also more complicated than you’d expect.

The basic formula is helpful as a general guide. US English mostly sticks to program, though programme exists as a variant spelling there. UK English uses programme in most contexts, but program is standard for computing senses. The frequency of this latter usage in recent decades has led to some confusion on this side of the Atlantic, if the texts I edit are any indication. It’s a good example of technology’s effect on vocabulary.

In the US, the bare form of the verb is program, but there is variation in the inflected forms – programming and programmed are customary, but programing and programed also appear. The one-m variants have declined significantly since the mid-1960s, though, and are now rare. Similarly, programmable never had serious competition from programable, but the shorter word occurs all the same.

The modern term programming language accidentally plays on the word’s etymology. Program comes from Late Latin programma ‘proclamation’, from a combination of pro– ‘forth’ + graphein ‘to write’ (the same root we find in telegram and anagram). Curiously, program is how the word entered English in the 17th century, and was used especially by Scottish writers.

Comparing with telegram, anagram, diagram and related words we see a clear pattern. But we don’t use telegramme, anagramme or diagramme, so what’s with programme’s unusual ending? It turns out that early in the 19th century the word was readopted from French programme, and this spelling soon spread to become the standard form in English, except of course in the US.

Lexicographer Robert Burchfield, in an endnote in his book The English Language, says he and Philip Gove (then editor-in-chief of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary) “lightheartedly discussed the possibility” of bringing the two spelling systems closer together, with both sides making trade-offs toward(s) this end, but the idea for such a program(me) didn’t come to anything in the end.

Email this Post Email this Post
Comments (3)
  • It’s astonishing how persistent the ‘programme’ spelling is in the UK when referring to computer programs. I saw one this weekend in – of all places – the Observer’s ‘Tech Monthly’ supplement, in an article by one of their top tech. writers. She definitely wouldn’t have written ‘programmes’, but that’s how it came out in the paper. Hard to believe a sub-editor wouldn’t know the ‘right’ spelling, so maybe this is just something their system does automatically?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 15th October, 2013
  • The words are spelled differently in the two systems. And that’s the way these systems are different. The problem comes when spell check in MS word underscores the words in red and nearly forces us to review even when we desire to follow the UK system. There is a constant pressure to change ways !

    Posted by Dilip Maydeo on 15th October, 2013
  • Michael: A broadsheet tech supplement would seem like one of the less likely places you’d see that mistake, but there are several ways it could have arisen; for example, maybe it appeared via autocorrect and then went unnoticed, or maybe it was subbed by a trainee or inattentive or tired editor. But I’m just guessing.

    Dilip: Indeed. MS Word’s spell check function is not to be relied on, unless the user goes to considerable trouble customising it. And even then, vigilance remains necessary.

    Posted by Stan on 15th October, 2013
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields