In John Ormsby's 1885 translation of Don Quixote, the word "despatch" is used. Is that the corresponding British spelling for "dispatch" or is it simply an archaic spelling (in both the American and UK English dialects), or is it both (British and archaic)?

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    I believe it's an archaic spelling, but apparently the English dispatch comes from the Spanish despachar (or possibly the Italian dispacciare). – Elliott Frisch Dec 31 '13 at 17:55
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The OED lists both spellings with equal status. 'Dispatch' is by far the more common spelling, uniquely so in the 16th, 17th, and 18th-century examples. 'Despatch' seems to have become fashionable in the late Victorian period.

When I was a child in 1950s' Britain I well-remember it often being spelled that way. But it has gone out of favour again. Nowadays you do still occasionally see 'despatch' used. Many would consider it old-fashioned but I am of the age where that becomes more a compliment than a reproach! It is the sort of thing I do, like referring to denims as 'dungarees' just to annoy my children.

  • And we Amis just call them "blue jeans." There's even a song called "Red Blue Jeans"! How that makes any sense, I have no clue. – B. Clay Shannon Dec 31 '13 at 18:13
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    @B.ClayShannon And 'jeans' have an interesting etymology as I'm sure you know. 'Jean' the cloth comes from the Medieval Latin 'Janua' - Genoa - where it was made. I hadn't realised that it pre-dated 'denim' from the French 'serge de Nimes'. It was in the once-Roman city of Nimes (South of France) where the denim clothing for American and West Indian slaves was made from the late 17th century. I hadn't realised what a panoply of history was contained in the old trousers I wear every day. – WS2 Dec 31 '13 at 18:25
  • Another good old-fashioned word for them is "britches." I like using those funky old words to make people think I'm even older and more of a country bumpkin than I really am ("vittles" and "grub" for food, "duds" for clothing, etc.) – B. Clay Shannon Dec 31 '13 at 18:35
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    @B.ClayShannon The ODE (not OED) gives 'britches' as an alternative, phonetic, spelling of 'breeches' which were short trousers, fastened just below the knee, for riding. However in rural England, as in rural America I can remember a time when the word was applied as slightly coarse slang for any trousers. I can also remember my grandmother's generation (born 1882) using it to refer to the woman's under-garment. In the 1579 translation of the Bible, Adam and Eve are said to have sowed 'figge-tree leaves and made themselves breeches'. That translation is often known as 'the Britches Bible'. – WS2 Dec 31 '13 at 19:06
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    @B.ClayShannon I think 'britches' may have survived a little longer in America than in the UK. However in 1950s rural Norfolk villages the metaphor of 'being too big for his britches' was certainly in use, and maybe still is among older people. But I don't remember in my lifetime any menswear department that called its trousers 'britches', as would have been the case in the 1920s. – WS2 Dec 31 '13 at 23:36

Despatch is still quite common in the UK. The manufacturing company I work for has a Despatch Team for example. In my view, in the UK despatch is traditionally used in preference to dispatch but that appears to be changing with younger people, who are more likely to use the American spelling.

  • On a side note, some friends from South Africa told me they took a trip to Thailand, and all the restaurants and food vendors offered two styles: American (not spicy at all) and Thai (very spicy); they wanted something in between, but only those two extremes were available. Pick your "poison" – B. Clay Shannon May 12 '16 at 14:58

Despatch can also be traced back to George Stephenson who named one of Rocket’s coaches Despatch along with Times and Experience. I always say dispatch. I’ve never heard anyone emphasise the E in despatch, even in this age of inflection

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