Center vs. Centre: What’s the Difference?

Much like color and colour or favorite and favourite, center and centre mean the same thing. British English just favors (or favours) the “-tre” spelling. American English uses “-ter”. There’s no correct spelling, since both versions may be used. What you might not know is that the “-ter” variant actually predates the modern British spelling. Believe it or not, Shakespeare, although arguably one of the world’s most famous Brits, preferred to spell the word with “-ter”. 

“Take this from this; if this be otherwise,

If Circumstances leade me, I will finde

Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeede

Within the Center.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, we would imagine it’d be hard for even the most fervent anglophile to find fault with the American spelling. As it happens, most of the former British colonies have retained the U.K. English spelling. Australian English and Canadian English mostly use “centre,” as do many other English dialects around the globe. 

In heated discussions on grammar forums, you’ll sometimes see people debating regional distinctions in how to best apply spellings at the present moment. For instance, some grammar fanatics in Canada insist that a centre is a gathering place, whereas a center is a middle point. One commenter, Daniel Beijerling, writes, “The idea that the two different spellings have two separate meanings is something that has apparently developed outside of the U.K.” To that end, it will be interesting to see how the English language continues to evolve, especially if regional preferences keep diverging.

No matter how you decide to spell the word, try to be consistent. Within the same piece of writing, stick to one preferred spelling and only deviate from that spelling for a good reason. For example, you might choose to use center, except when you mention a proper name, like Redman’s Distribution Centre. Most importantly, remember that the words “centered” and “centering” should be spelled differently, depending on which variant you choose to use. 

centre | centred | centring

center | centered | centering

Here are a few example sentences:

  • He centred the painting in the centre of the wall.
  • They’re centering the activities in the center of town.
  • She played centre field, which made her the centre of attention. 

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Etymology

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), the word “center” originates from the Proto-Indo-European root kent-, meaning “to prick.” That evolved into kentron, Greek for “sharp point, goad, sting of a wasp.” With the popularization of the drafting compass, the Latin word centrum came to describe the fixed point in the center of a circle. The 14th century saw the emergence of the –tre spelling in France, which passed into English by the late 1300’s. As the OED explains, “The spelling with -re was popularized in Britain by Johnson’s dictionary (following Bailey’s), though -er is older and was used by Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope.” 

Shakespeare and his contemporaries used the word to mean “the middle of something,” rather than exclusively the center point of a circle. Around the same time, in the 1590’s, English-speakers began to use “center” as a verb, meaning “to concentrate at a center.” People began to refer to the word in a figurative sense, as in “the center of power,” by the late 17th century. 

Americans dropped the Johnson’s Dictionary spelling with the publication of lexicographer Noah Webster’s three books on United States-centric spelling and grammar in the 1800’s. BBC America notes, “His first—originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language, then The American Spelling Book, then The Elementary Spelling Book—became the standard text book from which American teachers taught spelling for 100 years, and it was from reprints and reissues of that original text that Noah began to subtly refine words, spelling them according to how they sound.” He replaced “centre” with the other traditional variant “center,” and the rest is history. 

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines centre as the “chiefly British spelling of center.” 

As a verb, center means:

  • to place in the center
  • to focus on
  • to adjust the axes to coincide
  • to pass to the middle in a sports game
  • to hand a football back at the start of a down
  • to play a middle sporting position
  • to have a center

As a noun, center means:

  • The middle point of a circle or shape
  • A pivotally important point, area, person, or thing
  • A source
  • A population hub
  • Neurons with a common function
  • A facility
  • The middle section
  • Moderate politicians or political views
  • A sports player occupying a middle position
  • The middle of a sports field
  • Specific mechanisms in the middle of a lathe or grinding machine

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for center include:

  • middle
  • middle point
  • heart
  • hub
  • place
  • point of attraction for visitors, shoppers, travelers
  • capital
  • city
  • club
  • mall
  • market
  • plaza
  • shopping center
  • station
  • town
  • concentrate
  • draw together
  • attract
  • focus
  • gather
  • intensify
  • meet

Other Words and Phrases

“Center field” refers to the middle-most part of the baseball outfield. Until the convention of 1857, there was no official distance from the pitcher’s mound to home base. With the new written stipulations from the convention, the idea of a formal “center field” emerged.

“Dead center” means the absolute center-most point, and the terminology comes from mechanisms in the middle of a lathe or grinding machine that stayed in a fixed position. Whereas the rest of the machine rotated, the “dead center” did not move. 

“Center stage” has two meanings. It means the middle of a theatrical stage. From that definition, we get a secondary definition, referring to a central or prominent position. An issue or topic can “take center stage,” and a person can, as well. 

Isaac Newton first introduced the phrase “centre of gravity” in 1663. The phrase can be used in both a mathematical sense and a metaphorical sense. “Center of gravity,” when used figuratively, means a pivotally important point, area, person, or thing.

The concept of political centrism dates from the French Revolution, although the English word did not adopt this meaning until a few decades later. According to Encyclopedia.com, “The terms left, right, and center are believed to originate from the manner in which parliamentary factions were seated in the French Convention after the Revolution of 1789.”

Self-centered people have little regard for others and only care about themselves. This usage dates from the late 18th century, according to the OED

Sources:

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/centre
  2. https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2014/05/america-drop-u-british-spellings
  3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/05/18/the-long-lost-laws-of-base-ball-and-one-fans-outsized-bid-to-get-them/
  4. https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/centrism
  5. https://www.etymonline.com/word/self-centered#etymonline_v_23137