What Is ‘gh’ Doing in So Many English Words?

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iStock

It’s a blight, a thoroughly tough plight, enough to make you want to fight … or laugh. There are so many ways to pronounce, or not pronounce, the English "gh," almost none of which have anything to do with the usual "g" or "h" sound. Why is it there to begin with? 

Once upon a time, the "gh" did stand for a specific sound, one we don’t have in English today, except in interjections of disgust like blech. That back-of-the-throat fricative (written as /x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found in German, and if you look for the German counterpart of English "gh" words, you will often find the sound there: light ... licht, night ... nacht, eight ... acht, high ... hoch, neighbor ... nachbar, though ... doch.

So when you see a "gh," it usually means that it was pronounced with the blech sound in Old English, when our writing system was first developed. Early scribes had to adapt the Roman alphabet to English, and since Latin didn’t have the /x/ sound, they used "h" or a non-Roman character called a yogh (ȝ). Eventually, during the Middle English period, they settled on "gh."

By that time the pronunciation was already changing. The sound turned into /f/ or was dropped entirely. The Great Vowel Shift was underway and many parts of the language were in flux, but by the time the shift was complete, the printing press had stabilized the writing system, and the "gh," pointing back to an earlier English, was here to stay.

Not all examples of English "gh" can be traced back to the /x/ sound. The word-initial "gh" of ghost and ghoul came from the habits of Flemish typesetters. Words borrowed from Italian like spaghetti and ghetto just stuck with Italian spelling conventions.

And there are some words that show how "gh" took on a life of its own in English, words that came into the language long after Old English and never had a /x/ sound in them. Delight and sprightly were modified under the influence of light and right. Sleigh was made to look like weigh, perhaps to avoid looking like slay. Haughty was modeled on words like taught and aught, because, well, doesn’t that look more haughty than hawty? Like it or not, "aught" now stands for a specific pronunciation, with a rounded vowel, that really can't be spelled any other way (at least in dialects without the caught-cot merger). Is taught the same as tot or tawt? I think naught.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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