Disemvowelled

Julia Gillard

After a bruising three years in office, Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister and leader of the Labor Party (ALP), bowed out on Wednesday - or was pushed offstage by her arch frenemy, Kevin Rudd. The brutal nature of Australian politics was underlined once again... and a small matter of some odd spelling, writes Sally Davies.

One commentator observed that it was "brilliantly peculiar" that "labour is spelt labour in Australia, but the party is the Labor Party". Australia hews to Britain in matters of spelling, preferring the -our endings enshrined in Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary to the compressed -or of his American rival, Noah Webster, whose first dictionary was published half a century later. [See the effect here on the spelling of "labour" in America.] Before this, writers in English used the two interchangeably.

In the ALP's early years, from its roots in colonial workers' groups to its foundation as a federal political party in 1901, the organisation called itself "Labour". But the "u" fell victim to the influence of America's union movement - party leaders looked to the US and its large population as a crucible for experiments in organising workers. Historian Raymond Markey wrote that the Australian Services Union's decision to drop the "u" from -our words in publications bled into the ALP's writings.

In 1912, "Labour" officially became "Labor". The catalyst was King O'Malley, a self-aggrandising, teetotal Labor Minister for Home Affairs - and an American to boot. (Though as Americans were disbarred from parliament, he claimed he was Canadian.) O'Malley was a fan of "modern" spelling and pushed to drop the "u".

O'Malley was not the last linguistic rationalist that Australian politics would see. In the 1970s, the MP Doug Everingham acquired the semi-official moniker of "Minister for Helth", for his promotion of the SR1 simplified spelling reforms. Focusing on the short "e" sound, they would have swapped "friend" for "frend", "guess" for "gess" and "leopard" for "lepard". Neither "labour" nor "Labor", though, would have changed.

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