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I was writing in Word today (with the Canadian English dictionary enabled) and it kept putting a redline under "fourty" which I couldn't understand. A bit of searching says that, even in British and Canadian English, the spelling is indeed "forty" but without any real explanation.

It seems slightly counter-intuitive as we learn to spell so many words with the extra 'u' in Canada, and of course, some Canadian websites will actually write "fourty".

So why do we have four and fourteen, but not fourty?

Update: So I guess really the answer is that, unlike a lot of other words that may or may not be spelled with a 'u' in "recent" times (i.e. when American English became a standard), this has been spelt as "forty" for ages.

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It doesn't have a "u" in American English either. – Kit Z. Fox May 24 '11 at 1:15
As early as the 1600s, the OED cites spellings with "o" instead of "ou". One wonders if the pronunciations of the vowel part of "four" and "forty" were pronounced differently at the time the spelling solidified. (I have no idea if this is true though, but it does sometimes explain spelling oddities like this.) – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 1:41
@hippietrail: I am just worried it might be voted up even though I don't have any concrete evidence; I could be dead wrong. – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 2:01
@Kosmonaut: You're citing the OED and everybody knows English spelling has had either a random or a chaotic evolution with few precise explanations. Are you here for the questions and answers or for the reputation? Good answer anyway (-: – hippietrail May 24 '11 at 2:03
@hippietrail: If I were here for the reputation, I'd have posted it as an answer, wouldn't I? – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 2:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Before 1600, the OED gives citations where forty is spelled in various ways, but never with just an "o" vowel:

  • feuortig, feortiȝ, fuwerti, uourty (the "u" is really a "v"), fourty, fourthi, fourtie

This might possibly mean that there was some actual diphthong leading to these spellings; since most of these spellings occurred before there was any standardization, it is hard to tell either way.

In 1600, there are three citations, and, interestingly, all of them have just "o":

  • 1602 Contention Liberalitie & Prodigalitie i. iv. sig. B2, "Cham sure chaue come, vorty miles and twenty."
  • a1642 J. Suckling Poems (1646) 37, "And there did I see comming down Such folks as are not in our Town Vorty at least, in Pairs."
  • 1698 J. Fryer New Acct. E.-India & Persia 94, At the end of their Quarentine, which is Forty days.

(We can ignore the "v/f" alternation — something was apparently going with the voicing at the beginning of this word, but it probably has no bearing on the vowel following it.)

Aside from one citation in the 1700s that uses fourty, everything else from then on is written as forty.

One can only guess the reason for this change (at least with the information that I have) — whether it was pronunciation shifting or just orthographic simplification. But I might have an explanation for why this spelling took hold so swiftly in the 1600s: the Bible. The King James edition of the Bible was a major influence on the standards in English spelling. The KJV Bible was published in 1611 (begun in 1604), and (since I happen to have a KJV corpus handy) I see that there are 158 tokens with the spelling forty in KJV and 0 tokens for fourty.

So, even if the spelling of forty was following the whim of a handful of publishers, it got into the King James Bible, and that was that.

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Thanks :) This is just the type of answer I was looking for. – Jedidja May 24 '11 at 16:28
S the real questions is why does four (presumably from vier) have a u? – mgb Jun 3 '11 at 19:14
@fumblefingers - I suppose a non-native speaker who knew the AE/BE differences in words ending in -our (colour/neighbour/humour) assumed that forty followed the same pattern and BE/CE would spell it with a U – mgb Jun 3 '11 at 20:47
@Martin Beckett: No, it is not from "vier" any more than "vier" is from "four". It is from "feower" (Old English), from some such form as "fidwor" (Common Germanic), ultimately from "kwetwores" (Indo-European - the "kw" -> "f" is anomalous and unexplained, but it also occurred in the second cluster in "five" < "finf" < "penque".) – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 14:53
@Martin Beckett: from Germanic roots. Not from Modern German, which has equally diverged from its roots. – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 17:03

The other answers here have a good summary of the history of the spelling of this word, but:

To be clear, in contemporary English, the standard spelling is forty in all standard dialects and varieties. The spelling fourty, though it has historical precedent, does not have any currency. It is not listed as a modern spelling in any dictionaries.

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In Old English, it was spelt the 14th century (Chaucer) it was spelt fourty... and not until the very end of the 17th century was it spelt forty. In other words, it - like multitudes of other English words - went through a process of simplification over time.

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Uh, the 'g' in vierzig isn't pronounced like the 'ch' in Bach. – Marthaª May 24 '11 at 3:26
Oh, really? I wish I could speak at least of one them! – Jamie May 24 '11 at 3:47
It is a fricative like the /x/ in Bach, but it is palatalized by the "i" sound, becoming /ç/. – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 4:17
@Kosmonaut, thanks, removed the confusing pronouncing part. – Jamie May 24 '11 at 4:22

I've been having this argument for about two years now, with a Canadian who was educated in Ontario in the 60s, he swears his dictionary and teacher taught him to spell forty with a U. In fact he goes even further and states that the dictionary noted that forty was the Americanised spelling, which I find highly unlikely, as standard school dictionaries never include that kind of notation.

If the 1611 KJV of the Bible isn't proof enough that 'forty' is the accepted spelling, nothing is.

I'm English by birth and learned to spell in the nineteen forties, not the nineteen fourties.

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A Canadian dictionary would actually call it Americanized. I'm just giving you grief; I can't help myself. I do love spelling variations as a reminder that our language is – CynicallyNaive Jun 3 '11 at 16:50
LOL, that's exactly how he spelt it, CynicallyNaive, but I find it hard to break the English teachings of a lifetime. The OED offers a choice of ise or ize for many word endings. – Earthling Jun 3 '11 at 17:51
On a similar vein, I (and other Eastern Canadains / Ontarians) swear that we learned to spell dilemma as 'dilemna'. It wasn't until Michael Pollan's book came out that I realised the error of my ways. – Jedidja Jun 3 '11 at 18:07
I'm not surprised, Jedidja, especially seeing how you spell Canadians, LOL. I hope it was a typo. – Earthling Jun 3 '11 at 18:32
Oops. Yes, it was a typo heh. – Jedidja Jun 4 '11 at 4:25

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