Dispatch or Despatch, which is the correct English spelling?

Difference between Dispatch and Despatch

Whilst browsing an online auction site, okay so it was eBay, I spotted an ad that irked me. It was for yet another rival parcel delivery service or postal services aggregator/comparison site – competition is certainly keeping the prices down, especially of sending high heeled shoes through the post, the Royal Mail has recently specifically discounted a shoe box sized parcel! The ad in question was for despatchbay.com, named to sound like eBay rather than PirateBay one assumes – since the latter might suggest the stealing of goods rather than their dispatch, and the alternate meaning of dispatch – “to kill with quick efficiency” (Merriam-Webster, attested since the 1520s).

Despatch BayPerhaps they chose Despatch Bay over Dispatch Bay because the latter was already in use, by The Dispatch Bay, a UK-to-Pakistan specific courier business:

The Dispatch BayAlthough, I doubt they give it much thought, given how badly punctuated the website of the brand-owning company, The SaleGroup, is. Their tagline is “The Benchmark For Online Business” and yet we spotted half a dozen errors on a single page alone. They “eat, sleep and breathe the internet”, but I think they were ‘sleeping‘ during their proofreading.

This brings me to my professional pedant‘s persnicketiness (a much better word than pernickety, the extra ‘s’ in there, added around 1915, sounds so much more sinister and sneaky). My issue is that ‘despatch‘ just looks and sounds wrong, compared to (or with?) the more traditional, and so I thought, correct, ‘dispatch‘. So I went on an authoritative and exhaustive examination of the facts, i.e., I googled it.

Despatch a variant spelling of Dispatch?

My initial inquiry – or rather enquiry in British English to be ever so slightly pedantic, led me to believe that ‘despatch‘ was just a less common variation of ‘dispatch‘ and more typically British, in about a third of its millions of uses. So says the usually excellent Grammarist, anyway – the comments on their post are worth reading alone for how the discussion got into whether ‘despatch‘ was a noun or verb in some instances and for the commendable digression onto “a box of frogs and a shipment of drugs” whilst on “whacky baccy”! But I was not convinced.

Despatch Box

The specific use of the phrase “Despatch Box” when referring to the UK and Australian Parliamentary speaking lecturn lectern/rest and documents boxes (though now containing a Bible used for oaths) dates from the 17th century in Britain (although the current boxes were gifts from New Zealand after the existing ones were destroyed by a German bomb in 1941) and as a gift from King George V to Australia in 1927. I’ve not been able to prove a consistent early provenance of Despatch over Dispatch Box, but Despatch Box seems to have stuck in the British Parliament now. A historic anomaly, perhaps? What not “an historic anomaly” – well that is another grammar, style, and usage question entirely!

Dispatch and Despatch according to the Dictionary

A user on the StackExchange English Language & Usage site writes: “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.”

I would place the fashion as late 18th century though, due to the influence of the lexophile, Dr Samuel Johnson. Allegedly, the variant spelling arose due to a printing error in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which brought both spellings into wider usage by adding legitimacy to the des- spelling. Prior to that, spelling was hardly rigidly enforced.

Of the digital entries transcribed so far in an online version of the dictionary, ‘dispatch‘ occurs 8 times to a singular occurrence of ‘despatch‘ when used to define other words. As a dictionary entry itself, it only occurs under ‘despatch‘, there being no entry for ‘dispatch’ at all.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary entry - despatchUpon reviewing Johnson’s examples of the use of ‘despatch‘ in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the King James Version Bible (1611) it appears it was Johnson’s spelling, not the original’s he was citing, for though he has ‘despatch‘ in Ezekiel 23:47, the original KJV had:

“And the companie shall stone them with stones, and dispatch them with their swords: they shall slay their sonnes and their daughters, and burne vp their houses with fire.”

It will no doubt remain a debate for some time to come, even if it was at first an error, it is now a common error, and perhaps more peculiarly British. Though one forum commentator described seeing it “in Australia, where in New South Whales [sic], I encountered ‘despatch‘ everywhere, and in Queensland and Victoria, the ‘common’ spelling was ‘dispatch‘.”

Even users of a business discussion forum got heated on the subject and no closer to a conclusion, each claiming dis- or des- was more British and dis- definitely American, and thus to be discouraged! In the end, their solution was to use ‘send’ or ‘post’ instead.

Etymology

It is alleged by many sources that the words both have legitimate but distinct origins, that ‘dispatch‘ came from the Italian word dispacciare and ‘despatch‘ from the Spanish word despachar. For example, the differencebetween.net website entry which, unfortunately, misspells one of them to confuse the situation further:

“The origins of both words are also different. ‘Dispatch‘ came from the Italian word ‘dispacciare’. On the other hand, ‘dispatch’ came from the Spanish word ‘despachar’.”

They correct themselves in their summary:

“‘Despatch‘ came from the Spanish ‘despachar’ while the Italian ‘dispacciare’ formed the basis and formed the modern word of ‘dispatch‘.”

To call the word ‘dispatch“modern” is blatantly not true given the King James Bible and Shakespeare examples cited above and erroneously by Dr Johnson.

The second part of the word ‘-patch‘ is consistently spelt but variously attributed:

The exact source of the second element has been proposed as Vulgar Latin *pactare “to fasten, fix” or *pactiare, or as Latin -pedicare “to entrap” (from Latin pedica “shackle;” see impeach); and the Spanish and Italian words seem to be related to (perhaps opposites of) Old Provençal empachar “impede.” etymonline.com

Whatever the Latin root, the Spanish ended up with despachar “expedite, hasten” and the Italians dispacciare “to dispatch”, with little difference between des– and dis-, other than spelling.

Despatch, South Africa

As an aside, Despatch is also a small town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa situated between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, from where its main product was ‘dis-‘ or ‘despatched‘. Its name was derived from the late 1800s brick industry it became renowned for, and with which its bricks were imprinted.

Summary

It would seem in an international commerce age prudent to go with the more internationally and internet acceptable majority of ‘dispatch‘, particularly if some people’s reactions to seeing ‘despatch‘ is to think mistake or typo and thus give off a less professional image. Even if the OED says both are acceptable, it is impression and opinion that matter as much as legitimacy and a dubious history. For business purposes the 10-50x as many web searches and results done for ‘dispatch‘ over ‘despatch‘ would indicate that the former is a better SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) choice. To anyone who disagrees, may they be dispatched overseas!

31 thoughts on “Dispatch or Despatch, which is the correct English spelling?

  1. I certainly don’t disagree, as your argument is sound, and your research irrefutable. However, I was taught despatch and have always used that. Very rarely have I come across the spelling dispatch, so out of inquisitiveness, decided to exhaustively research the origins of the spelling (ie, I also Googled it!) and came across this page.
    Informative, interesting, but does not sway me from my resolve to use the ‘e’ in the spelling rather than the ‘i’.
    I guess it really comes down to ‘po-tay-toes’, ‘po-tah-toes’, if both are technically correct.

    • Nat, you have written exactly what I was thinking and which led me to this page! I am 71 and all my life i have used “despatch” and thought the other variant to be a pervasive Americanism.I am a retired Welsh lawyer and am rather careful with the written word!

      • Since I posted my comment I have notced the erudite post of Emlyn (must be Welsh!) and his careful distinction between the two words which, on reflection, also accords with my own impression, notwithstanding what I said in my first post. I wish now I had written nowt, but it’s a dull afternoon and no golf…

        • Siw mae, Randall (or should it be ‘shwmai’?). I’m sorry that I didn’t reply to your kind comment with the dispatch/despatch it merited, Yes, I do have a Welsh background. My mother is a Welsh-speaker, though I myself have only a limited fluency in that language. It is interesting nonetheless that the ‘dispatch/despatch’ debate is apparently mirrored in the Welsh language itself by the perplexing choice (for the Welsh translation of the same word) between ‘anfon’, ‘hanfon’ and ‘danfon’….but don’t quote me on this! Doubtlessly, such distinctions and disagreements occur across all languages. For me, it has been a life-long struggle to avoid faulty grammar and literary inelegance in English itself. The thought of grappling with such challenges in Welsh or any other language would be several bridges too far! A belated ‘Blwyddyn Newydd Dda’ for 2016, and Happy Golfing.

  2. I agree with Nat as I was taught and have always used “despatch”, However, consulting my trusty old Concise Oxford Dictionary states “dispatch” is to send off to a destination or for a purpose; give the death blow to, kill, get task promptly done. It also differentiates between the two spellings as 1. “dispatch” sending off messenger, letter etc and 2. “despatch” written message especially official communication on state or military affairs. Taking that in it’s literal sense “dis” would be the action of sending and “des” would be the physical manuscript or document. That would seem to be pretty clear but then the Oxford proceeds to somewhat spoil it’s own logic because it’s separate entry for “despatch” says “see dispatch”.

    • Thank you, Des, for pointing out the differentiation of spelling in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Like a number of other commenters here, I was educated in the UK in the 1950s and 60s, and was invariably taught to use the spelling ‘despatch’. I realise that the world has moved on and that ‘dispatch’ is now the usual spelling. Indeed, the use of ‘despatch’ in standard written communication can inadvertently expose one to the charge of illiteracy. Nevertheless, there are historical associations that I am loath to jettison. Firstly, the gallantry award ‘Mentioned in Despatches’, which is still used by the British, Canadian and Indian armed forces. Secondly, the ‘Despatch Riders’ deployed by British and Commonwealth forces at least until the end of the Second World War. And, thirdly, the ‘Despatch Boxes’ still used in the UK and Australian Parliaments. My personal exit-visa out of this quandary is the one that Des intimates: I use ‘despatch’ as the noun for the ‘item of communication’ that is ‘dispatched’. I use ‘dispatch’ for the verb or the action (including the alternative meaning ‘to kill’). I can live with this as a workable compromise. However, I have yet to decide conclusively on the spelling of ‘dispatch/despatch’ where it refers to the quality of promptness or speed. My hunch is that ‘dispatch’ would be more appropriate in this context, though I am sure that there are some of you out there who would disagree!

      • Del…sincere apologies, in advance, for mis-spelling your name twice within my comment a couple of hours ago. It only goes to show that – somewhere within my Subconscious – the primaeval urge to spell the word as ‘des..patch’ is exerting a greater power that I had imagined!

  3. I agree with Nat; I, too, was brought up with “despatch”. Upon occasionally seeing “dispatch”, I thought it to be misspelled. I have since learned, through sites such as these, that it is an alternative spelling. Whether it has more hits than “despatch” is irrelevant to me, as my version, in my eyes, is “correct:” And, after all, it is an alternative and not spelt incorrectly.

  4. I love your research as it was irritating me (the other way round as I was also taught Despatch being British).
    I think you have missed a crucial point in looking at the two variants relative volume of use in the modern world, the culprit Microsoft (any other software vendors)!
    I am unable to type the to me correct spelling “Despatch” because regardless of the app if its from Office it insists “Despatch is wrong and wants it corrected to Dispatch. And what’s worse in later versions you can no longer (by default) just add the correct spelling to your dictionary.
    I think the 8:1 win is down to Office and not common usage at least in the UK were Despatch is the more commonly used word its just because we know either is OK and we hate sending documents with little squiggly red underlines left in them we allow our correct spelling to be done away with.

    Right now I am off to Google getting Word to add what I like to the dictionary.

    Ian.

  5. I’m a translator currently working on some training material for hunting and shooting. I’m currently going with ‘dispatch’ to denote killing wounded game. The different (British) textbooks I use as reference are thoroughly confused/inconsistent in their use of ‘dis-‘ or ‘des-‘, often within the same book. Which should I use?

  6. As a brit I was also taught Despatch rather than dispatch and I’m happy to take the guidance that perhaps dispatch is slightly better and less confusing to use than despatch.
    But…I really cannot cope with using the word ‘alternate’ when what you actually mean is ‘alternative’. That is a bridge too far! 🙂

    • In India , we were taught Despatch, but as Ian mountain pointed out, software’s really don’t allow despatch. Special thanks to Emlyn for reminding me of the English that was spoken in late 70’s. The problem is, people do not understand these words now a days.

  7. I had to smile “Although, I doubt they give it much thought, given how badly punctuated the website of the brand-owning company, The SaleGroup, is.”

  8. Interesting discussion, thank you; I’ve never been sure which to use.
    But I’m surprised that, as a pedant, you have written (in the second paragraph under ‘The Dispatch Bay’ picture) ‘… looks and sounds wrong, compared to the original.’ Compared WITH, surely? !

    • Both, lol! An examination of the facts means to examine the facts themselves. An examination on the facts implies an exam or test of say a person based upon their knowledge of the facts.

    • Hi Gael.
      No the correct way to say this is ” the musketeers soon dispatched the ogre Bluebeard with their swords.”
      As I have previously posted here the word “despatch” refers to a physical item or document. To send an item in the post you would dispatch the document.
      If using the term in the sense to kill someone it is also to dispatch them.

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