Why is it that "theater" and "theatre" do not follow the traditional rules of British and American spelling? British spellings like "metre" and "centre" are consistently switched to "meter" and "center," respectively, in American spelling, but it seems like "theater" and "theatre" are both used in American spelling. Is there any particular reason why the British spelling is common in America for this one word? In American English, is either "theater" or "theatre" considered more acceptable?
Britishisms often creep into American English as personal affectations, or because the British spelling is perceived as being more "upscale." In my experience, the "theatre" spelling largely appears in two contexts in AmE: in the names of theaters (dramatic or cinema) that wish to project an upscale vibe, and in writing by devotees of the dramatic arts, who as a group can be a bit... well, "pretentious" is such an ugly word, but there you have it.
We don't exactly have shortages of either theater geeks or social climbing movie houses in the US, so that's probably why the "theatre" spelling seems so common.
Here's a relevant Google Books ngram (click to embiggen and interactivate):
Facts to glean here:
- For most of the 19th century, "theatre" was pretty much the only spelling used on either side of the Atlantic.
- "Theater" started out small throughout the second half of the 19th century in American usage with almost no usage at all in Britain.
- In American usage, "theatre" stayed fairly flat throughout the 20th century, while "theater" usage grew quite a bit. "Theater" only surpassed "theatre" in American usage sometime in the late 1970s.
- Since the 1980s, "theatre" has been on the decline in American usage.
- "theater" has been rising in British usage throughout the twentieth century, but usage is still primarily "theatre"
One important difference between a word like "theatre" and a word like "color" is that "theatre" is very often part of a name, and therefore must be spelled however the name is, and should not be "translated." It would be incorrect to standardize the spelling of "theater" in "Goodman Theatre" of Chicago. But do use the American spelling of words that are not formal names: use the "er" spelling in all generic references, such as, "She earned a degree in theater history at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago."
In my experience, "theatre" like "programme" (have you seen that?) is used in some formal or more exclusive settings. For example, in attending an original play written by a renown individual in my community, the invite read something like this: "...a special experience in theatre." Upon arrival, the elegant document we received with the acts of the play and credits said, "Programme."