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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The long and the short of it

Length, width, breadth, depth, and .... height?

Which of these things is not like the other ones? Why don't we have a -th at the end of the noun derived from "high" as we do with other nouns describing dimensions? Do you feel superior when you hear someone say "heighth", convinced that you are right and they are wrong? Well, stop it.

The "heighth" pronunciation goes much further back in English than the upstart "height", a northern dialect form which took over, for unknown reasons, after about 1550. Indeed, the OED's "height" entry, which was written at the end of the 19th century, gave "highth" (a form which so eminent a person as the poet Milton preferred) as a second headword along with "height". As late as the 18th century this spelling was giving "height" a run for its money, but I doubt the OED lexicographers would include it now, as "height" has established itself as the only standard spelling. But in Old English and Middle English, the form with the -th ending was more common. I'll save the explanation of why we spell "height" with an "e" but "high" without one for another day.

Nowadays people who use the -th pronunciation tend to tack the sound on after a -t- sound (on the analogy of "width" and "breadth", almost certainly affected by that contending pronunciation ending in -t, and possibly influenced by the pronunciation of "eighth"). In the Middle Ages the -t- sound before the -th- would have been absent. It is not uncommon for older pronunciations to survive in North America after they have died out in Britain ('erb for "herb" is a very good example). So, in North America at least, the pronunciation "heighth" can be considered simply a variant rather than an "incorrect form".

While we're on the subject of dimensions, did you know that the word "width" was a literary invention of the 17th century, replacing the word "wideness", with which we had been quite happy for about 500 years, and standing alongside "breadth", which had cropped up a century earlier. (English has never been a language to make do with one word for a concept when two are available.) Samuel Johnson was of the opinion that "width" was "a low word". That just goes to show how little impact lexicographers' pronouncements have on usage! "Depth", was a similar latecomer, appearing in the 14th century to bump off "deepness", which had been the Old English word.

Of these dimension words ending in -th, the only one that dates back to Old English is "length", and you may be interested to know that, judging by the spelling, people have been pronouncing it "lenth", without the "g", since at least 1400. The word "lengthy" was an American invention of the 1600s, inevitably attacked as a dastardly and unnecessary Americanism by British usage commentators of the 1700s. Thus do usage pet peeves fade away with the passage of time!

I hope you haven't found this blog post to be lengthy, as "lengthy" usually has connotations of being overlong and tedious. But it certainly has been a long one, unlike my usual posts, which tend to be distinguished by their... shorth?

1 comment:

  1. re North American variants. Unlike the French language, in France, that refuses to acknowledge regional variants as acceptable in polite society.

    ReplyDelete

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.