Skip to main content

Galadriel Watson is a writer living in British Columbia and author of children’s books, including Running Wild: Awesome Animals in Motion.

A few weeks ago, someone posted a photo on my small B.C. town’s community Facebook page. It was of the construction site of our new child-care facility, located at the elementary school. Crews had just finished installing a very large, permanent sign. In all caps, it read: EARLY CHILDHOOD LEARNING CENTER.

My cheeks heated. Although I rarely post, my fingers itched. I had to comment. “Looks great,” I wrote, “but it’s spelled American! It should be ‘centre.’ ”

Immediately, the return comments began flowing. Squeamish about controversy – and certain I’d peeved many, who would defend the sign decision-maker’s choice – I turned off the post’s notifications. Let them banter back and forth by themselves. I just hoped that the people in charge would recognize the error and fix it.

It isn’t the first time I’ve seen American spelling used where they should know better: in an educational setting. About 15 years ago in Calgary, my two children started attending a brand new elementary school. The door plate on the counsellor’s room read “counselor.” I cringed every time I passed by. At the same school, my kindergarten-age daughter was sent home with a list of words to learn, with at least one word incorrect. I corrected the teacher. I didn’t bother correcting the “counselor.”

As a writer and daily defender of Canadianisms, inaccuracies like these scream out to me. Worse, they feel like a punch to the gut – especially when they’re GIGANTIC and can be clearly read from blocks away. We’re practically American as it is. If we proudly announce new “centers,” will our uniqueness continue to fade?

French Canadians, I understand your gripe. Across the ocean, residents in France liberally sprinkle their French with English words – to do so, “c’est cool,” a French acquaintance recently told me; the people in l’Hexagone aren’t surrounded by English and worried they’ll drown. On the other hand, French Canadians are geographically encircled and technologically bombarded by English. To keep their language intact, they must fight tooth and nail.

Ditto us and the U.S.

In that spirit, it was my duty to comment on the learning “center” post. It’s one thing to have a small door plate wrong. It’s another to err in letters that rise half the height of the children who walk by it, screwed into concrete at the kids’ eye level – kids who are malleable and learning and about to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Besides, our spelling came first.

Once upon a time, English writers penned words in whatever way worked; one word could have multiple versions. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 added French spellings to the mix. Between about the 1300s and 1700s, folks began saying vowels differently. (Before this Great Vowel Shift, “food,” “good” and “blood” rhymed.) The result was a mishmash of spellings that might veer from how words were actually pronounced.

In 1755, Britain’s Samuel Johnson pared these words down to the most common renditions and created a dictionary. Today, in Britain and Canada, most of these spellings still stand.

Always pushing for independence, however, the Americans decided to go their own route. Recognizing that established spellings could be confusing and hard to learn, Noah Webster created a dictionary that claimed to simplify many aspects. “Colour” became “color.” “Catalogue” became “catalog.” “Encyclopaedia” became “encyclopedia.” And – woe is me – “counsellor” became “counselor” and “centre” became “center.”

Some of these variations slipped north. For example, we “organize” thanks to Webster, rather than “organise.” Our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, however, declared that the majority of traditional British spellings should stick.

I hate to think that a man so closely connected to the residential-school system in Canada had a hand in shaping the language I love. But languages are living things, always morphing with the times. In 2005, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary added more “Canadianisms” (words such as “loonie” and “toonie”), bringing them to a total of almost 2,250. In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary added 500 words, including “Canadian” ones such as “inukshuk.” If we didn’t want to spell it “centre” any more, we wouldn’t. It’s not Macdonald alone who has upheld this system. It’s the millions of Canadians who, for two centuries since Webster fussed with the words, have continued to get our spelling right.

Therefore, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the thread of Facebook comments that followed mine. When I finally looked back at them, I discovered that most of the people agreed with me. They hoped the sign could be fixed. (As of the last time I drove by, it hadn’t been.) They loved that Canadian spelling stands out and instantly distinguishes us. Someone noted that if trucks park in front of the sign, they would hide it. Only a couple of people defended the sign. Although born here, one said that she has always written it “center.”

Which is why educational settings must be careful – including a child-care facility being built by the school district itself. A habit set in childhood is a habit set for life. My own daughter, as she was about to graduate high school, wrote an essay using “practice” as a verb. I tried to persuade her to change it to “practise.” She declined. She said that spelling it like that would be weird.

That’s the point. If becoming Americanized makes us “normal,” I’m all for being weird.

So whoever ordered the sign, please – ask a worker to unscrew the final “e” and “r” and flip them the other way around. The effort would be minimal but the impact would be grand.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles