Why do the British and the Canadians spell check “cheque”? (Post deleted on Quora)

By: | Post date: June 15, 2022 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Language

It is delicious when hundreds (literally) of Poms puffs their chests out in pride to assert that cheque was the original spelling, and dastardly Noah Webster simplified English spelling because Americans are stupid, and pip pip, we speak English and its our language, and the Yanks perverted it, and they can’t tell check and cheque apart…

… only for historical fact to kick their unwarranted, empire-losing vanity in the face.

Of course, being Poms, they won’t notice.

Check is the original spelling.[2][3] The newer spelling, cheque, is believed to have come into use around 1828, when the switch was made by James William Gilbart in his Practical Treatise on Banking.[3]

[3]: Ellinger, Peter (August 1981). “Chapter 4: Negotiable Instruments”. In Ziegel, Jacob S. (ed.). International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law. Vol. IX: Commercial Transactions and Institutions. Springer. p. 26. “It would appear that the modern spelling, viz. cheque came into use at about 1828, when the switch was made by Gilbart, Practical Treatise on Banking (London 1828) 14. Holden 209 points out that Chitty, On Bills of Exchange, used the old spelling, viz. check, until ed. 10 in 1859. The adherence to “check” in the United States is a commendable manifestation of independent conservativism.”

The spellings check, checque, and cheque were used interchangeably from the 17th century until the 20th century.[4] However, since the 19th century, in the Commonwealth and Ireland, the spelling cheque (from the French word chèque) has become standard for the financial instrument, while check is used only for other meanings, thus distinguishing the two definitions in writing.

In American English, the usual spelling for both is check.[6]

Etymological dictionaries attribute the financial meaning of check to come from “a check against forgery”, with the use of “check” to mean “control” stemming from a check in chess, a term which came into English through French, Latin, Arabic and ultimately from the Persian word shah, or “king“.

Not one of you self-important tea-sippers who have responded that check is an American abomination bothered checking something as simple as Wikipedia before shooting your mouths off about Webster, did you?

No. Of course not.

Accordingly, the Oxford English Dictionary, authored by scholars and not online blowhards trying to compensate for the Loss of Empire, notes as the etymology of cheque:

Cheque is a differentiated spelling of check , which is also in use, especially in U.S. In meaning it belongs to check n.1 13. Compare also check v.1 16.

As it turns out, the very earliest instance in the OED of check in a financial sense, the Acts of Parliament from 1706, use the spelling checque, influenced by the fact that they’re referencing counterfoils (receipts) of exchequer bills.

From being the name of the counterfoil of an Exchequer or other bill, the purpose of which was to check forgery or alteration, the name appears to have been applied to any bill, note, or draft, having a counterfoil, and thus to its present sense, where a counterfoil (though usual) is not even necessary.

After all: “The spellings checkchecque, and cheque were used interchangeably from the 17th century until the 20th century.”

Act 5 Anne c. 13 [Enacts that Exchequer Bills be made henceforth with two counterfoils instead of one, and] That the said Governor and Company [of Bk. of Eng.] shall..have the use and custody of the one part of all and euery the Checques, Indents, or Counterfoyls of all such Exchequer Bills..and from which the same Exchequer Bills shall be cut.

But if you want a lexicographer who chose to simplify the spelling of the word, and supposedly to have introduced needless confusion into the world, your man is not Noah Webster.

It’s Samuel Johnson.

1755 S. Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang. Check, the correspondent cipher of a bank bill.

You have heard of Samuel Johnson, I trust, defenders of the most Britannic English tongue?

Hint for those playing at home. He wasn’t American.

And while most 18th century instances of the word in the OED are cheque, there are several quite British instances of check through the 19th century.

Including by one Charles Babbage:

1832 C. Babbage Econ. Machinery & Manuf. (ed. 2) xiv. 124 All payments are made, through written orders called checks.

Hint for those playing at home. He wasn’t American either.

As one answer given entirely typically puts it:

“Check” and “cheque” are different words, and we know how to spell them both.

Ah yes. “We British.” As opposed to some lesser lights of British history, like Johnson and Babbage. And some lesser, more benighted times of human history, when a check was the “name of the counterfoil of an Exchequer or other bill, the purpose of which was to check forgery or alteration.”

We’ve seen this anachronistic show on Quora of people spouting off nationalism in lieu of historical linguistics before:

These historical facts have not stopped British people who can’t be bothered to research their own language from complaining that ‘tyre’ is the ‘correct’ spelling and ‘tire’ is incorrect American nonsense.

And we will see it again.

That’s ok. Gives me more stuff to write about here.

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