“In answer to this, all that Gussie could produce was a sort of strangled hiccough.”

It was in that passage from Right Ho, Jeeves, or perhaps another like it from the works of Wodehouse, that I first saw hiccough. “Hm,” I thought (or something like it), “hiccough must be like a hiccup, I guess, but mixed with a cough.” Easy enough to imagine a hiccup simultaneous with a cough, perhaps a one-off thing rather than the insistent annoyance that is a bout of hiccups. The word brought to my mind – still brings to my mind – my brother, as an adolescent, laughing so hard he would hiccup and burp at the same time while still laughing.

Ah, but no, that actually doesn’t have a word of its own (unless we wish to try to divert this one to it). What hiccough is, more than anything else, is evidence of the real nature of the progress of English orthography over history: not so much a smooth evolution as a case of historical hiccups. Or should I write hiccoughs.

It started neatly enough: there was this human physical phenomenon in which the diaphragm twitches, causing a sharp intake of breath that causes the glottis to abruptly stop the airflow; in short, the body produces a marked ingressive glottal stop, almost a glottal pulmonary implosive. Then, typically, it does it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And aaaarrrrrgggghhhhh.

So anyway, this irritating thing produces a sound. Want to name it? Imitate the sound. For the most part, Western European languages don’t have a glottal stop as a separate phoneme, and certainly not a strong enough one to do the job here – uh-uh – so a /k/ will do, and /h/ for the sharp intake before it. Dutch has hik, as does Danish; Swedish has hicka; Breton has hok; French has hoquet and Latin has hoquetus; and English had, first, hicket and hickock (with various spellings, including hitchcock) and shortly thereafter hiccup, which from the 16th to 19th centuries showed a variety of alternative spellings: hicke up, hikup, hickop, hickhop, hecup, hiccop, hickup, hick-up

And somewhere in the 1600s, someone apparently got the idea that this word had come in part from cough. This was a time when words were being respelled by some people on the basis of their origins (real or false), which is how we got such weird messes as debt, people, and island (see “What’s up with English spelling”). Sometimes the pronunciation changed, as with falcon (formerly faucon). But in the case of hiccough, the spelling was simply changed to reflect what was mistakenly thought to be its origin, but the pronunciation was kept the same.

Yough. That’s right. I’m not making this ough. As though ough didn’t have enough different ways to be said, now the cough really runneth over. (If I had a buck for every different pronunciation of ough, the things I could have bought with the dough by the time I was through – um, well, a coughle of coughees, I mean a couple of coffees, anyway. Fancy ones.)

But, really, this word is a sort of ugly poughy, I mean puppy, isn’t it? The hiccough spelling, I mean. Hiccup has a certain cleanness to it, with that prim and proud p and the two gleaming hooks of the cc; even better, hic is Latin for “here”, so it can seem to say “here’s the cup” – i.e., the cup of water you will need to drink slowly while holding your breath in order to get rid of the hiccups. And of course the up brings to mind some words that go with up in reference to eructations and diaphragmatic spasms.

Well, true, cough also brings to mind diaphragmatic spasms. But not when pronounced like cup! And while the various subgroups of letters are not so odd when seen in sensible contexts – hickory, piccolo, accoutrement – hiccough is a bit less expected, most especially because, if you’re like me, your mind rebels against the very idea of pronouncing that gh as [p]. Noghe! Won’t do! Imghossible!

At the same time, though, it’s like a particularly ugly article of furniture that just happens to have been a famous forgery of four centuries past and is now in an antique shop with a breathtaking price tag on it. It puts me in mind of a vase I saw in the Victoria and Albert Museum that caused me to break out in laughter: it was strangely gaudy and ornate, and among other things had a honeycomb neck with bees crawling on it and a base that was three cat feet that looked as though they had been cut off Heathcliff of cartoon fame.

But it’s in the V&A, so it must be worth something! And hiccough is seen in assorted British texts – well, it’s their language, so they must know it, right? (actually, it’s our language too; in fact, their standard version is in many ways farther from the origins than the colonial versions are) – and, most importantly, it has a weird and unexpected spelling. So it must be the better, more formal way to spell it! That’s what people assume, generally: more silent letters and other orthographical perversities equals higher class.

But if you are tempted to jump on that wagon, do bear in mind the admonition of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Hiccough was a later spelling, apparently under the erroneous impression that the second syllable was cough, which has not affected the received pronunciation, and ought to be abandoned as a mere error.” In the end, though, it is ough to you…

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