Q&A: “Jewelry” vs “jewellery”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, ringing the changes…

Q: Hi AWC, can I ask you about jewellery?

A: Sure, but seriously, you don’t need to buy us gifts.

Q: What? Oh no, it’s a question. Namely, why do Americans spell it “jewelry” and the rest of the world goes with “jewellery”?

A: Ah, this one. Yeah, it’s weird right?

Q: So weird!

A: It’s actually dates back to the first American stores that sold jewels – their signs weren’t allowed to be very wide, and so–

Q: Are you seriously trying to make up a story about them going with fewer letters to help with signwriting?

A: Ahem. Yes, we were trying to do that. Sorry.

Q: A real answer please!

A: Okay, well let’s begin with the word “jewel” – a spelling, by the way, that EVERYONE agrees on. It came to English in the late 1200s, by way of Old French “jouel” – itself from an earlier Latin word meaning “joy”.

Q: Okay, makes sense so far.

A: Originally the word described any item of value that was used for adornment – but fairly quickly this was narrowed to specifically relate to gemstones and precious metals.

Q: Okay, so what about Jewel?

A: Huh?

Q: You know. “Consoled a cup of coffee but it didn’t wanna talk”?

A: The singer named Jewel? Um, sure. She was born Jewel Kilcher and grew up in Alaska before breaking through in the 1990s with her album Pieces of You. But we seem to be getting off topic.

Q: I always liked that song. Especially the part about not leaving wet towels on the floor anymore.

A: Can we continue?

Q: Please.

A: According to Online Etymology, the first iteration of “jewellery” came along in the late 1300s – originally spelt “juelrye”. It has to be remembered that language was still like the Wild West at this point.

Q: Oh, so words were stepping into saloons with those flippy doors… What are those called again?

A: Saloon doors.

Q: Oh yes, of course. So they walk in and the piano player stops abruptly and they say, “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”?

A: A cute scene, but not quite. Let’s just say there weren’t a lot of rules around spelling things. Printing presses hadn’t come along yet and the first dictionaries were centuries away.

Q: What a mess it must have been!

A: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. 

Q: I’ve heard that. I usually need to use a mirror…

A: Anyway, our point is that the question of spelling only became an issue with the arrival of printing. This happened to coincide with the British sailing to America, and a new colony eager to do things in a new way. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the spelling of “jewelry” was first recorded in 1624 – just a few years after the first European settlers arrived.

Q: So they weren’t purposely going against any established spelling?

A: It’s unlikely – the first real dictionary was still 150 years away. They were just putting their own spin on things and going with what sounded right to them, without any history to weigh them down. 

Q: Cue the start of the Hamilton soundtrack!

A: Haha, exactly. Meanwhile, Britain took a more measured and scholarly approach to spelling during this time – often influenced by French words.

Q: They went with double-L…

A: That’s right. Britain doubled down on the double-L rule – which meant that a vowel had to follow it. The result was “jewellery”. We’ve actually discussed double- and single-L differences here before.

Q: So we have!

A: Anyway, by the time the big dictionaries came along in the 18th and 19th centuries–

Q: Big dictionary energy!

A: Ahem. Yes. So by then, this particular spelling divide was entrenched, also extending to “jeweler” in the USA and “jeweller” everywhere else.

Q: Is there a plural of “jewellery”

A: No – it’s a mass (on non-count) noun, much like “furniture”.

Q: So we’ve said that the USA spells it “jewelry”. But what about Canada?

A: Good question. They often have a foot in both camps – thanks to their own links to France and Britain. In this case, they use BOTH spellings. But everywhere else outside North America, you’ll only find “jewellery”.

Q: Do you think they’ll ever go back to having just one spelling – a reunification of Germany type thing?

A: It’s unlikely. Americans aren’t likely to give up their ways – and they have a lot of influence today thanks to popular culture and the internet. You simply need to accept that there are two spellings depending on where you live.

Q: Maybe we should just all call it “bling” instead!

A: Haha, sure. This term, by the way, came into prominence in the 1990s – possibly influenced by the German “blinken”, meaning to gleam or sparkle. US rap slang embraced it in the mainstream – and it’s also somewhat onomatopoeic, as in the sound made when jewels and precious metals glitter. 


A: Exactly.

Q: Well thanks for explaining that to me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my coat in the pouring rain. Or pick up a book and turn the sheets down…

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