Coliseum vs. colosseum

Coliseum and colosseum are both common spellings of the word referring to (1) the famous Roman amphitheater built in the first century A.D., and (2) any large amphitheater used for sports or other public events. Neither spelling is considered wrong in either use, but while the forms are often used interchangeably, the famous structure in Rome is now usually spelled Colosseum, and coliseum is generally reserved for other uses. Exceptions are easily found, however, and there is no consensus evident in popular usage.

Some English reference sources claim that colosseum is the British spelling for both the Roman structure and the common noun, but this is not consistently borne out in writing searchable on the web. In the rare instances where the word is not part of a name, coliseum is about twice as common as colosseum on British websites. But because the sample size for this is small, it might not be a reliable indicator of where British usage actually stands right now. It could be that colosseum is indeed the preferred form in all types of British writing that are not searchable online.

The issue is clear-cut in the U.S. Coliseum is the preferred spelling except when it comes to the Roman Colosseum. As in British writing, the word usually appears in names of buildings, but the generic noun is a little more common in the U.S. than in the U.K., probably due to a spate of new buildings with coliseum in their names built over the last few decades.

22 thoughts on “Coliseum vs. colosseum”

    • Please reread the first paragraph. We searched extensively in English-language publications that publish online. In the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, “Colosseum” is used almost exclusively in reference to the Roman Colosseum, and “coliseum” is used elsewhere. If you don’t believe us and don’t trust our examples, go to Google News and do some searches yourself.

      • First, I apologize for misspelling atrocious, even though it was just a typo. Second, you may be right about ‘coliseum’ but in my whole life (I’m 64) I’ve never seen it spelled that way and I think it’s grotesque, like something a semi-literate teenage texter would come up with. It will always be ‘colosseum’ for me!
        I also think it’s goofy to call actresses ‘actors’, since gender matters in that profession. How about if we started calling John Wayne an actress, just to be fair?

          • Yes, but this is only a few years old. It’s an example of forced political correctness, and while I agree that it’s a good thing to minimize gender differences in the language – we don’t hear anachronisms such as ‘poetess’ any more – sometimes this has clumsy results: why must we say ‘female actor’ instead of the perfectly usable ‘actress’? The very words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ are sexist by nature, where the roots are masculine.
            When I read articles with the constant repetition of phrases like ‘he or she’ I get exasperated with them: pick one or the other but stop having to remind us of how p/c you are, or use my own term s/he (which by the way puts the female first, something ‘he or she’ does not).
            Many languages use the same pronouns for all genders including ‘it’, so they are happily free of this kind of nonsense. Some like German are worse off, though, because every word has a gender and must be referred to by the correct pronoun whether it makes sense or not. Mark Twain wrote a hilarious essay titled “The Horrible German Language” satirizing this and other features of this relative of English, which I highly recommend for a good laugh.

          • I don’t think so: the Italian ‘colosseo’ comes directly from the Latin ‘Colosseum.’ The badly-spelled ‘coliseum’ probably originated with some sloppy English speaker: we have a history of mangling foreign words.

      • I find that very hard to believe. It only took me seconds to find Colosseum being used the way you say it isn’t.

        [I almost posted this reply without noticing that my pesky American handwriting-recognition system had “autocorrected” Colosseum” to “Coliseum”.]

  1. “The ancient outdoor theater in Rome is called the Colosseum. In all other contexts, the word for a large amphitheater used for sports or entertainment events is coliseum.”

    Even if you won’t believe British dictionaries and your British correspondents, your own evidence, and 5 minutes on the interweb, show that that isn’t true. Don’t overstate your case!

      • Great! Thanks, we’re making progress – the explicit prescriptivism has gone. It never really belonged on a site like this. If you are going to tell people that their spelling is wrong, you need plenty of evidence – the more so when their spelling is the original spelling of the word, is phonetic, is logical (in that it reflects the etymology in the way its rival doesn’t), and is in the dictionary! A trend on an n-gram is nowhere near enough.

        But even if we treat your observations as descriptive, I still think that you are overstating your case. The vast majority of times that someone uses the word colosseum/coliseum, they are referring to one particular building, which has that word as part of its name. Then they use (or should use) the spelling chosen by the builder or owner of the building. Nobody is suggesting that the namer of the building is not entitled to name it as they like. (At least, they aren’t now that you have changed your second sentence!) Because of this, a web-search on the alternative words is likely to be swamped by uses where they are proper nouns; you will need to somehow exclude those uses to get any idea of the common noun used for the concept.

        I have tried to do this by searching on “a colosseum” and “a coliseum”, getting approximately 198 000 hits and 141 000 hits respectively – not just not a massive preponderance for the latter, but an actual minority. Thinking that that might be because of the word combination “Roma Colosseum”, I searched for that, and for “Roma Coliseum”. Surprisingly there were more of the latter, so discounting the “Roma” hits actually increased the preponderance of “colosseum” – it now wins by about 149 000 to 85 500. (Estimates to 3 significant figures.)

        There is certainly plenty of evidence of “colosseum” as a common noun. For instance, it is used by computer gamers, as in “Q: How do you get into the colosseum in Pokémon Colosseum? A: Actually, there are multiple colosseums”. Similarly, “you cannot speed up a colosseum event” [in

        Taking your word for the situation in the USA, it seems that there, “coliseum” is totally dominant as both common and proper noun. In Britain, there are Colosseums and Coliseums. My (unresearched) impression is that proscenium-arch theatres tend to go for “Coliseum”, while “Colosseum” is favoured for larger buildings suitable for in-the-round entertainments. (And also, ironically, for more intimate spaces like clubs.) Though I rarely need the common noun for one of the larger buildings, I have no doubt that in my idiolect, it is “colosseum”, and I have no reason to doubt the word of dictionary-makers who say that the same applies for Britons in general.

        • You are raising lots of great issues, so we’re going take a much closer look at this over the weekend and edit the post to make sure it doesn’t overstate anything. If I correctly recall what happened last time we did research on this, we ended up having to take a lot of things out of the equation, not just the Roman Colosseum but also the London Coliseum, other proper names of buildings, common-noun references to these buildings, references to video games in which the word is spelled a certain way, and reference sources and websites discussing the spelling of the word. All in all, it seems that the word just doesn’t appear much outside these contexts. And in what we were looking at at the time, which was a series of narrowed-down Google searches designed to cover lots of recently written text from British writers, we found many more uncapitalized, generic uses of “coliseum” than “colosseum.” We’ll try to re-create all this and will edit this post either to provide more details to back up our case or to remove anything that turns out to be be overstatement.

          Thanks for holding our feet to the fire about this. It’s extremely helpful.

        • To follow up, the results this time were very much like what we saw before. Getting around all the instances of “coliseum” and “colosseum” as parts of names is difficult, and no matter how we go about doing it we are left with no more than a handful of instances of the word as a common noun. While it is true that we’re seeing”coliseum” more than “colosseum” in this sort of use on British websites and in searchable books, the sample size is probably too small for us to rely on it for the sweeping statements we made in the version of this post that drew your criticism. In one search, for instance, where we filtered out all the “coliseum” names from 10 years of content in a selection of about 30 British news websites, we were left with seven instances of “coliseum” against three instances of “colosseum.” This obviously isn’t enough to go on. So we’ve edited the post to make it much less conclusive and to note more clearly that both spellings are widely used. We’ve also pared it down, removing the ngram and the useless examples, and we’ll revisit it in a couple of months.

          • That’s a pearl of an article, now! Thanks, guys! I look forward to the historical version, when you get around to it.

  2. I prefer to use ‘colosseum’, even though my spell check disagrees with me. To me, the word conveys a sense of grandeur and romance that ‘coliseum’ fails to capture. But interesting analysis!

  3. One of the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual is clarification over thorny homophones. The Romans spoke Latin; contemporary French is derived from it; and, in French, there is only one word for these large structures: “colisée”. “Colossée” simply doesn’t exist.

    The logical conclusion is that the correct spelling should always be coliseum (or Coliseum) and that “colosseum” is the result of homophonic misspelling by masses of uninformed people.

    • In Italian, the name for the Flavian Amphiteater aka the Colossuem is COLOSSEO… the colossal one based on a colossal statue of Emperor Nero that was found on that site, so whatever it may be in French, in Italian it is Colosseo and thus Colosseum in American English.

      • Cate, I didn’t know that! Even after a half-century, I get to learn fascinating new facts like this one. Thank you for pointing that out; you made my day.

          • Not at all! I was delighted! I tried so hard to avoid any wording of thanks that could have been misconstrued as sarcasm.

        • BTW spicygarage.
          The Flavian emperor who built it was Vespasian (there were 3: Vespasian the father, and two sons: Titus and Domitian). He built the Flavian Amphiteater to give back to the Roman what Nero had taken to build his Domus Aurea (Golden House) and to quiet the unrest by putting on games, circuses, and giving the populace bread. Anyway, the name Flavian Amphiteater was used for approximately the first 1000 years and then the nick name Colosseo began to be used and still is to this day.
          Probably more information than you wanted to know….
          Ciao, Cate


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