Cynthia Heimel’s entertaining collection of short articles If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? has a funny piece on mispronouncing a word – something we can all probably relate to. In this case it’s a common word, the speaker discovers the ‘mistake’ relatively late in life, and, as we’ll see, it’s not really a mistake at all.
The piece is presented as a letter to an agony aunt, originally published, I think, in Heimel’s column for The Village Voice:
Dear Problem Lady:
All my life I’ve said “heighth.” I thought that’s what you said. Then today my friend said to me, “It’s ‘height,’ isn’t it? At least I think so.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess it is, now that I think about it,” I said casually.
“I thought so,” she said.
I wanted to kill myself.
She knew damned well it was “height,” and she finally couldn’t stand it anymore.
I see the word clearly in my mind and it sure doesn’t have an h at the end of it. I’ve been obsessing for ten hours now. Forty-two years, I’ve said “heighth.” And I’m a horse trainer, can you guess how many times I’ve said “heighth” in my career? I’m so mortified I think I should go up to everyone I know and say, “Look, I know it’s really height, okay? I’m not stupid or anything.”
But then they’d think I was stupid and insane.
Should I just find a way to inject “height” into every conversation I have for the rest of my life?
You’re a jock. Jocks say “heighth,” even on TV, even smart jocks.
The word began in Old English with a –th sound near the end, analogous to width, length, depth and breadth. It was spelled híehþo – that þ letter is a thorn and signifies a voiceless dental fricative: the ‘th’ sound in heighth. (The vowel sound has changed too, but I’m ignoring it here for simplicity’s sake.)
True believers in the sanctity of etymology should therefore use heighth or highth.
This –th pronunciation prevailed for centuries, and still does in some populations and for some speakers. Michael Quinion has a helpful summary. Thus in Paradise Lost Milton writes, ‘To attaine The highth and depth of thy Eternal wayes’, while Burgess in A Clockwork Orange has droogs ‘dressed in the heighth of fashion’.
Other examples can be found in Shakespeare and Dickens. It’s all over the literature of Middle and Early Modern English. According to the OED:
From the 13th cent. the final -th after –ȝ, -gh varied with t (compare drought, drouth). In Middle English the forms [ending] in -t were predominant in the north, and since 1500 have increasingly prevailed in the literary language; though heighth, highth were abundant in southern writers till the 18th cent., and are still affected by some. . . . Current usage is a compromise, retaining the spelling height (which has been by far the most frequent written form since 1500), with the pronunciation of hight.
Not all authorities give heighth a free pass. Burchfield says it’s a vulgarism, while Garner finds it ‘less than fully literate’.
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, however, says the –t /haɪt/ and –th /haɪtθ/ pronunciations are both standard. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage agrees, since the –th usage is ‘too widespread among the highly educated and the highly placed’ to be otherwise. But it warns that some will see it as an error regardless.
Spelling-wise MWDEU describes heighth and highth as ‘etymologically pure and . . . not errors’, but recommends sticking with height.
Let’s hope Abby was reconciled to her preference, whatever it turned out to be, and abandoned her plan to confess all to everyone she knew.