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Artefact versus artifact

Q From John Weiss: Could you give a note on the historical or geographical divide between artifact and artefact? I was brought up to stick with artefact, much as the incompatibility with artificial annoyed me, and I was surprised to see you use artifact. I suppose I could look it up, but your explanations are more fun.

A Flattery will get you everywhere ...

Presumably you are referring to the recent piece on ecofact? In the newsletter I was inconsistent, using artefact one week (while noting that Americans spelled it artifact), but the next week accidentally spelling it artifact (I put in as evidence for the defence a saying of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”).

In saying that the British spelled it with an e, while Americans spelled it with an i, I was guilty of a sweeping generalisation that needs some qualification and footnotes.

Both spellings may be found in both countries. In Britain, the preferred form given in dictionaries is artefact, though the other often appears as an alternative. The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors firmly suggests spelling it with an e, as does Bill Bryson in The Penguin Dictionary for Writers and Editors. However, the style guide of The Economist, with a large international circulation, suggests using artifact, since it is acceptable, it says, both to American and British readers. Americans prefer the i form by a large majority, but not exclusively so — newspaper practice seems to vary considerably, some insisting on the i form, others being more relaxed about it.

The spelling with i seems to have been around for rather more than a century, though my impression is that it only started to become common in the US from the 1920s on, and in the UK much more recently still (American usage has had considerable impact on British, one reason why I didn’t spot my inconsistent spelling).

The form in i was obviously influenced by artifice and artificial, both of which contain the same Latin word arte, by or using art, which is also the basis for artefact. So, if we’re arguing from etymology, artefact wins without a contest, but then to be consistent we would have to write arteficial and artefice. The confusion of spelling actually goes back to classical times, since the direct ancestor of artifice and artificial is Latin artificium, a thing made by skill or art.

For most people, the word is a technical term which they encounter rarely enough that they are neither sure how to spell it, nor care very much about which form to use. The difference is minor, after all, and the risk of confusion small.

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