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Within Biology, there are some biological terms that differ in spelling between the British English and American English dictionaries. For example, oestrogen and oesophagus, as well as the word oestriol are all spelled differently in British English dictionaries. Is there anything in particular that makes this so?

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You don't mention of how you spell them in America! –  Joe Nov 18 '11 at 14:18

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The word oestrogen comes from the Latin word oestrus, and oesophagus is a Latin word as well.

The oe spelling in Latin originally represented a diphthong [oj] ("oy"), but then later (in Latin) became a long vowel [ee]. When we borrowed such words into English, it was pronounced more like [i], [e], or [ɛ] (depending on the word), following English pronunciation rules.

And since we pronounce them like "estrogen" and "esophagus", the US English spelling was changed to reflect the English pronunciation more closely, by dropping the o. In British English, the connection to the original Latin spelling was retained.

(Something similar to this happened with, e.g., encyclopaedia (British) / encyclopedia (US).)

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Right on the money. Historically, English comes from both Germanic and Latin/French roots. This led to wildly inconsistent spellings that were often at odds with pronunciation. From the mid 1800s through the early 1900s, the US had a series of reforms to bring American spelling more in line with real-world phonetic pronunciation. (Even multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie and President Teddy Roosevelt weighed in.) This didn't occur in other English-speaking countries, so that's why you see oestrogen/estrogen, as well as colour/color, catalogue/catalog, and anaemia/anemia. –  Bob Murphy Nov 2 '10 at 17:31
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Hochdeutsch is not phonetically accurate, but it is much more consistent. However, it is becoming less so, because many English words have been borrowed into German whose English spellings are retained, e.g. live, jeans, chatten... and even handy, a German creation that means cell phone, but follows English spelling conventions. (The proper German spelling would have been Händi.) –  Kosmonaut Nov 2 '10 at 19:29
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Mein Handy: youtube.com/watch?v=8WIscxut_ak (Stephen Fry, QI). –  TRiG Nov 26 '10 at 11:31
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@Bob Murphy, Agreed. One precision though. The "color" spelling, along with a large number of other ones can actually be traced back as early as 1783 with the speller (look here for the 1832 edition) by Noah Webster (the father of the Webster dictionary). In this little book (around 100 million copies sold !!!) one can spot most of the common words spelling variants between AmE and modern English. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 6 '11 at 16:21
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Oesophagus was not Roman Latin; it was medieval Latin from the 12–13ᵗʰ centuries. It comes from ancient Greek οἰσοϕάγος, the gullet. The OED3 adds: ”Compare Middle French œsophagus (1549). Compare oesophage n. If analysed correctly, the formation of ancient Greek οἰσοϕάγος is unusual, as -ϕάγος in compounds usually means ‘eating (something)’, ‘eater’.” It appears that oestrus was classical, though: “classical Latin oestrus gadfly, wild desire, frenzy < ancient Greek οἶστρος gadfly, insect that infects tunny fish, also sting, hence frenzy, mad impulse.” –  tchrist Mar 2 '12 at 17:17

The person most credited with these systematic changes in American spelling is Noah Webster. He developed and published the first complete American English dictionary about 200 years ago. He was a believer in spelling according to sound and consequently removed a number of silent letters. He also changed "s" to "z" in certain words (realise" to "realize" e.g.) And finally, he changed the "-re" ending found in French-derived nouns to "-er". ("theatre"-"theater")

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Although it’s still acre everywhere, and some Americans still prefer the meagre spelling for the same reason. –  tchrist Mar 2 '12 at 17:24
    
Webster didn't change -ize to -ise. In his day -ise and -ize (and likewise, -ization and -isation) had been alternative spellings for some time, but -ize was the most popular in both Britain and America. Webster's decision to use the -ize form helped it remain the most popular form in the US, but then Johnson's dictionary also used -ize as does the OED to this day. Etymologically, the ending comes from two separate sources, Latin -ize and French -ise and the popularity of each has flipped over the centuries, with -ise making its last rise during the last century. –  Jon Hanna Jan 29 at 12:09

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