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, we’re manoeuvring around the topic…
Q: Hi AWC, what’s the word that means ‘a series of movements’ or ‘to position something in place’?
A: Hmmmm… Wait, do you know it?
Q: Yes, but I want you to write it first.
A: Oh, right. Any more clues?
Q: It’s difficult to do with a trailer when you’re reversing your car.
A: Accelerate? Hmmm nope. Anything else?
Q: Oh! That guy Heimlich invented one of these to stop people choking.
A: Ahhhh – got it. The word you’re after is “manoeuvre”!
Q: Yes, that’s it. But is it true that it’s not spelt like that everywhere?
A: Ha, well yes. In fact, it’s rather a hot mess of a word. Apologies in advance, but the USA spells it “maneuver”…
Q: But, but, but. Why??
A: Time for an origin story.
Q: These are never as fun as the Marvel ones.
A: Yeah sorry about that. Anyway, it began back in the 13th century with the Old French word “manovre” meaning “working with hands”. The present-day word “manure” actually had a similar start – it originally meaning “to cultivate soil by hand” before instead becoming the word for that most effective of fertilisers, animal dung.
Q: I had a feeling this was all going to sh–
A: Ahem! Shall we continue?
A: By the late 1700s, the French word “manoeuvre” had arrived in English, now meaning “to manipulate” – still related to working with one’s hands. It quickly became a noun too, to describe an artful plan or strategy – such as a military manoeuvre.
Q: So when did the USA go all ‘word jumble’ on it?
A: Webster’s original American dictionary came along in 1828, but he didn’t touch it. In fact, throughout the 1800s, everyone including the Americans were happy to float in their “manoe canoe” and spell it “manoeuvre”.
Q: What prompted the change then?
A: The formation of the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906, by Andrew Carnegie. He and his team proposed a number of rules designed to make words easier to spell. Some were rejected, such as changing “although” to “altho”. However things DID change with converting “oeu” to “u” and changing “re” (after any consonant except C) to “er”.
Q: Wait, but that would have turned “manoeuvre” into “manuver”, yeah?
A: Well yes. It seems that with many words, they were met halfway. The “e” was allowed to stay, and “maneuver” became the standard spelling from the 1910s on in USA.
Q: Wow, so final.
A: It’s a fascinating thing, as there were many other rules. The “re” to “er” one of course is the reason that today we see the American spelling of “theater” or “center”.
Q: I used to love watching that show ER with George Clooney as the doctor. To think that it would have been called RE if it weren’t for this change…
A: Um, no, that’s not how it wor—
Q: So, anyway, do you have any tips on remembering how to spell “manoeuvre”? It really is a mess.
A: Sure. Picture yourself hopping in your CANOE, slapping on sunscreen with good UV protection and paddling off to buy some Real Estate (RE).
Q: Wouldn’t that give me “canoeuvre”?
A: We figure you’ll be able to swap out the M just fine. But remember of course, if you’re writing for Americans, you’ll want to have the lion’s mane, with sunscreen, in the ER.
Q: Cough, cough…I think I’m choking on all this knowledge. Where’s Heimlich when you need him?
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!