By Bennett Liebman Government Lawyer in Residence Government Law Center, Albany Law School
All entertainment and arts lawyers find themselves in the same vexing position. What is the proper spelling of the word describing a place or a building to watch plays, presentations or motion pictures? Is it a "theatre" ending with the -re, or a "theater" ending with the -er? How did we reach this conundrum, and does it matter at all?
The answer to the last question is the easiest one. It does not matter. The meaning of the word remains the same regardless of the spelling. The only item to note is that one can't alter the proper name of a designated specific theater or theatre. As the Chicago Manual of Style online states, "Proper names must not be edited for style or spelling." Therefore, the "Shubert Theatre" cannot be spelled as the "Shubert Theater".
In the United Kingdom, the -re spelling is considered the proper spelling. In America, the -er spelling is more frequently used.
How did we find ourselves with these divergent positions? Are England and America, as George Bernard Shaw allegedly said, "two countries divided by the same language?"
The etymological history starts with the fact that the word was derived in England from the French word "theatre." The Oxford English Dictionary finds that the term was first used in England in 1380. From 1550 to about 1700, it was primarily spelled with the "er" spelling. This is basically confirmed by a review of Google Ngram data shows that the peak use of the word "theater" (until the conclusion of the 20th century) was in the first quarter of the 17th century, Nonetheless, the use of the -er spelling faded out by 1700 and was entirely replaced by the -re spelling. It can be seen in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, which only uses "theatre". It has been that way ever since in the United Kingdom. So how did "theatre" become "theater" in the United States?
The answer is a simple one. Lexicographer Noah Webster in the early 19th century did not like the -re" endings used in England for words that had been derived from the French language. He wanted American spellings to be more phonetic. English spellings like sceptre, sepulchre, centre, metre, fibre, ordre, and calibre were discarded by Webster. In the same manner Webster changed the "theatre" to the "theater."
It took a while for the -er spelling to take hold, but by the 20th century it had become the predominant usage in America. The U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual lists "theater" as the preferred spelling. "Theater" is the spelling used by Corpus of Contemporary American English. The Associated Press Stylebook is pro-"theater". Even the Cambridge Dictionary notes that "theater" is the "US spelling of theatre."
Yet, the -re spelling has hardly been counted out in America. It is still frequently utilized, especially in the context of live plays. A 2019 survey of companies putting on live performances in Colorado found that 40 companies use the -re spelling, as compared to only 14 using the -er spelling. "The vast majority of companies that have Theatre or Theater in their proper names prefer the word Theatre... And a healthy number (38) perhaps smartly avoid the word altogether."
For much of America the spellings are interchangeable, with the clear edge going to the -er spelling. Yet for a good portion of the country, the -re spelling suggests the somewhat more pretentious live performances while the -er spelling is for the more mundane movie houses.
We all, however, can agree with the cause of the -re v. -er fight. How did we get there? Who put the -er in theatre? Put the blame on Noah Webster.