There are times when things just don’t look right, don’t sound right, don’t match what you expect, and it seems to come out of nowhere; you can’t see clearly, like you’re in a mist, and you’re full of… kauch.

Kauch? Is that like a short form of “OK, augh!” or “OK, ouch”? Well, no, but it does express something of that attitude. It means ‘trouble, worry, anxiety’. And it’s said like…

…hmm, well, there are quite a few variations on the pronunciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Brits may say it /kjɔːx/, /kjɔː/, /kɔːx/, or /kɔːk/; Americans may say it /kjɔ/, /kjɑ/, /kjɔx/, /kjɑx/, /kɔk/, /kɑk/, /kɔx/, or /kɑx/; Scots say it/kjɔx/. And Wiktionary goes simply with /kjɑx/. Which, for those not familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, is like if you start to say “cute” but replace the “oot” with “ach” (as in the Scottish or German word), perhaps because you see something that troubles you.

Which might be, for instance, how you get to that pronunciation from the spelling kauch. Shouldn’t it at least be kiauch?

Would you settle for kiaugh? That’s the other spelling, and it helps account for those versions that sound like “kyaw” as well. But you can write it kauch and pronounce it /kjɑx/, or you can write it kiaugh and pronounce it /kɔk/. Because anxiety has its own secret reasons and distortions, hiding behind clouds, and nothing seems to go together as it should or to make clear sense.

And nothing has a good justification, either. This word, for instance. Where does it come from? Oxford doesn’t know. Wiktionary doesn’t know. Merriam-Webster (which goes only with the kiaugh spelling and the /kjɑx/ pronunciation) doesn’t know.

We do know that it’s a Scottish word, originally, and so it would seem to come from Scots Gaelic, which branched off from the same old tongue as modern Irish. And the way that /kjɑx/ would be spelled in Irish would typically be ceach or ciach. It happens that there’s no Irish word (modern or historical) spelled ceach, though ceacht means ‘lesson’ (a cause of anxiety for many people), but there is an Irish word ciach, a now-disused genitive form of the word ceo (ceo is said like “kyo” or “ko”). Of course many people get anxiety from their CEO, but this ceo means ‘fog’, ‘mist’, ‘haze’, or ‘vapour’ – or it can be used idiomatically in a phrase such as “Níl tú ag insint ceo den fhírinne dhom” (“You aren’t telling me a word of the truth,” or more literally “You aren’t telling me a mist of the truth”; thanks to Wiktionary for the example). So ciach used to mean ‘of fog’ or ‘of mist’ (or ‘fog’s’ or ‘mist’s’), but now they just use ceo unchanged for that.

But that’s not where kauch comes from either. Remember: etymology by sound is not sound etymology! You need to have a trail of attested uses. And there’s no known link. Sometimes when you try to go back in the mists of time, you just get more mist.

Just like how sometimes when you dive into anxiety, worry, trouble, kauch, kiaugh, whatever, you just get more of it.

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