Dispatch - despatch

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These are alternative spellings for the same word, whose base meaning is 'send in a hurry'. It can be either a verb or a noun. A government can 'dispatch troops to the frontier'; a messenger can 'carry dispatches', e.g. from an ambassador to his own government. It is sometimes used as a euphemism for 'to send [someone] to meet his Maker' (another euphemism) or 'to kill', and more generally in various contexts of 'get rid of'. One can dispatch business by finishing it off expeditiously.

Another meaning is simply 'haste': a letter sent 'with all dispatch' is one delivered as soon as possible.

The spelling was regularly dispatch until the 18th century, when the great lexicographer Dr Johnson, who used dispatch himself, seems to have made a mistake - and entered this word alphabetically as despatch, under des. Under the ordinary development of spelling, it should have remained as it always had been dispatch.

So AWE's advice - and, more to the point, that of the OED - is to use dispatch, not despatch.

However, the British Library more often uses despatch, and the Ministry of Defence wavers in its spelling on line - see the paragraph

"Mention in Despatches [the heading]
::The Mentioned in Dispatches award [caption to illustration of oak-leaf insignia]
::A Mention in Despatches is an operational gallantry award given to all ranks for an act (or acts) of bravery during active operations. This award is available posthumously. [text] ([[1]])

The Dispatches (or Despatches) in which 'all ranks' who have shown bravery are mentioned are the official reports sent by commanders in the field to London (or an intermediate superior) on a battle or a campaign. These are in themselves less important in an age of improved communications than tney were before the development of radio, but are still sent, if their primary purpose appears now only to be mentioning meritorious individual conduct. They are published in The London Gazette.

Various functions in the military are named with di[or e]spatch as an element.

  • A dispatch rider in the army is one who carries dispatches as quickly as possible, originally by horse, then by bicycle and lately most commonly by motor-cycle. The skills of these led to
    • The sporting event of 'the Modern Pentathlon', which focused on the skills supposed to be needed to deliver a message through hostile territory, with competitions in shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrianism, and cross country running.
    • The Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team gave stunt-riding performances in various military displays until 2017. The team of 24 riders performed intricate gymnastic and acrobatic routines.
  • The Royal Navy's equivalent was a despatch boat. In 1805, the topsail schooner HMS Pickle became famous for bringing Vice-Admniral Collingwood's official dispatches announcing the victory at Trafalgar, and the death of Nelson to England.