The ‘heighth’ of embarrassment

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?

Abby

*

Dear Abby:

You’re a jock. Jocks say “heighth,”  even on TV, even smart jocks.

Move on.

Problem Lady

cynthia heimel - if you leave me, can i come too - picador book coverBefore dismissing heighth as incorrect, which you may be tempted to do, think of it simply as a variant – or, if you must, as less than fully standard.

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.

15 Responses to The ‘heighth’ of embarrassment

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    I hope Cynthia Heimel has seen the attached fabulous clip from Australian band, Mental as anything: as far as I know the first to coin the line “If you leave me can I come too?”

  2. astraya says:

    I have never consciously heard anyone say heighth, and would probably have thought it a slip of the tongue if I had.

    Reading through the article, I was mentally pronouncing /haɪθ/, not /haɪtθ/.

    I’m wondering if the awkwardness of the spelling had anything to do with the change in pronunciation, but then length has four consonant letters in a row, and also we have not much problem spelling or pronouncing eighth.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Now that you mention it, I’d say /haɪθ/ too. Dictionaries tend to go with /haɪtθ/.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard eighth (or eight) pronounced other than normally, but I wonder if it sometimes influences the spelling *heighth or the pronunciation /haɪθ/.

      Realising throat as /trəʊθ/ ‘troath’ is a related one I hear sometimes. There’s an interesting note about it in this comment at Language Hat.

  3. astraya says:

    The last verse of the hymn ‘Just as I am’ begins ‘Just as I am, of that free love / the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove’. It is very hard to sing.

  4. Mneh says:

    Hi Stan

    Where I grew up on the eastern part of the Irish border the normal Hiberno-English pronunciation of the word is “heighth” with that nice short, sharp dental ‘th’ that we use in Ireland 😁 Until I moved to Belfast, I was not aware that some other people found this pronunciation strange.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Mneh. It does seem very common in Ireland, though I don’t know just how common compared with the more normal pronunciation. When I mentioned it on Twitter earlier, a couple of people said they pronounced it ‘heighth’ but had never noticed before that there was anything unusual about it, for instance that it doesn’t match the spelling.

      • Brendano says:

        Some Irish people are very wary of pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘t’, and this may lead them to make the opposite error. I’ve heard sports commentators very deliberately say ‘heighth’: perhaps by analogy with ‘length’ in their minds

        • Stan Carey says:

          Yes – or perhaps because that’s how they would spell it too.

          Years ago I met someone who said most word-initial /θ/s as /t/, like ‘three’ → ‘tree’, so when he told me he was from Tang (a place I didn’t know, then), I thought it was really ‘Thang’.

  5. egbertstarr says:

    Holden Caulfield does too..

  6. astraya says:

    I’ve been wondering how many people omit the consonant or simplify the cluster before ‘th’, especially in fast informal speech: fith, sisth or sith, seveth, ‘ayth’, nith, teth etc.

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