'Labor' vs 'Labour': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on July 13, 2023

‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’: What’s the Difference? Clearly, the most visible difference between these two words lies in the spelling. But it may surprise some people that this is not, in fact, a typo but rather a difference that comes from historical linguistics. 

In a hurry? Here is a quick rundown of what you’ll read: 

  • ‘Labor’ is a noun that means work, specifically of the physically difficult kind.
  • ‘Labour’ means the exact same thing, but this version is the British English spelling.

What’s the Difference Between ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’?

As mentioned, the spelling difference between these two words is not a mistake but rather represents two spellings that are both correct. ‘Labor’ is the American English spelling of the word. Meanwhile, ‘Labour’ is the older British English spelling of the word.

  • Note that the difference in spelling does not change the meaning of the word. 

The difference between ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’ is one that has its roots in historical spelling stemming back from before the founding of the United States. Old British English used the old spelling ‘Labour’ in its official dictionaries, which were brought over to the Americas. 

As time progressed, the American accent developed and sounded less and less British, which impacted not only pronunciation but spelling as well. When Noah Webster published the first American dictionary in 1806, many formerly British English spellings were changed. 

  • These changes included using ‘Labor’ instead of ‘Labour’ due to the American accent moving phonetically away from pronouncing the “u”. 

In modern American English, we now use ‘Labor’ as our primary spelling, but ‘Labour’ is still used in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. 

Examples of British English

An easy way to avoid confusion when encountering British English spellings is to know what the original spellings are. Below are a few examples to help you get a handle on these historical forms of our new words. 

‘Ou’ to ‘o’ Words

The reason some of these may look as though they sound ridiculous is because they don’t match how we view these words phonetically — hence what drove so much of the spelling change. The “ou” sound in American English sounds way more like “ow” than just the plain “o,” which is why we read these words more familiarly without the “ou.” 

Other British English Spellings

These are just a few more examples of changes from British English to American English. If you look and read closely they show that same change to a more American pronunciation being reflected phonetically. 

Now that you’ve learned more about the root of the difference between ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour,’ let’s dive in and learn more about the word itself. 

Definition of ‘Labor’: What Does it Mean? 

A reminder that ‘Labor’ and ‘Labour’ both mean exactly the same, but for clarity, I will stick to one spelling here

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Labor’ is a noun that means: 

  • Work, especially hard physical work

As a noun, it can also mean:

  • Workers, especially manual workers, are considered collectively
  • Manual workers are considered a social class or political force
  • A department of the government concerned with the nation’s workforce
  • (in the United Kingdom or Canada) the Labour Party
  • The process of childbirth, especially in the period from the start of uterine contractions to delivery

As a verb, ‘Labor’ is defined as: 

  • Work hard; make a great effort
  • Have difficulty doing something despite working hard
  • (of a woman in childbirth) be in labor

As a verb, it can also mean: 

  • Work in an unskilled manual occupation
  • Till (the ground) 
  • Move or proceed with difficulty
  • (of an engine) work noisily with difficulty
  • (of a ship) roll or pitch heavily

Synonyms for ‘Labor’

  • Work
  • Undertaking
  • Endeavor
  • Industry
  • Employment
  • Job
  • Birth 
  • Childbearing
  • Strive
  • Tend

Antonyms for ‘Labor’

  • Ignore
  • Neglect
  • Idle
  • Laziness
  • Inactivity
  • Unemployment
  • Hindrance
  • Manager

Phrases with ‘Labor’

  • Labor Day
  • Go into labor
  • Labor away
  • Labor worker
  • Hard labor
  • Labor Union

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’

Given the words are the same to the regular American eye, one might assume they are pronounced the same as well. In theory, they are — but the difference in pronunciation and a lack of phonetic matching is what led to the spelling change in the first place. So, below, you’ll find both the American English and British English pronunciations to see how the words would sound in both contexts. 

Use this phonetic spelling of the American English ‘Labor’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Lay-buhr’ (sounding similar to the word “laser”)

Use this phonetic spelling of the British English ‘Labour’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Lay-buh’ (notice the “r” is almost invisible in the British pronunciation)

How to Use ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’ in a Sentence

To help specify context, below, you’ll find example sentences with scenarios where you might use both American English and British English spellings. Depending on where you live, one spelling may be more normal to you, but seeing both can also help you identify it in future readings. 

‘Labor’ Example Sentences

  • He worked in the hot sun for hours a day doing manual labor, which is why he was always so tired. 
  • On Labor Day weekend, many families will host barbecues to celebrate the national holiday. 
  • She labored away at her sewing project, determined to finish the quilt in time for her grandmother's birthday. 
  • The pregnant woman was very disappointed when she went into labor in the middle of the season finale of her favorite TV series. 

‘Labour’ Example Sentences

  • The Labour Party is a political party in the United Kingdom that is mainly composed of social democrats. 
  • Signing her travel documents to leave England was such a labourious task. 
  • He was pleased to finally get paid after all the hard labour he had put into his job. 
  • They decided to join the Labour Union to ensure they were paid fairly for their work. 

Final Advice on ‘Labor’ vs ‘Labour’

This article has been both a history and a vocabulary lesson all in one. Navigating British English spellings can be confusing at first, but are much easier once you start to recognize where they appear. 

Want a recap of what was covered?

  • ‘Labor’ is a noun that means work, specifically, that is difficult and done manually. 
  • ‘Labour’ spelled with an “ou” is not a typo, but the word's British English spelling reflects historical phonetic spelling. 

Want to nail down other British English spellings? Check out other confusing word articles to get a sense of other historical linguistic changes and expand your understanding of the English language on a global level.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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