I imagine most of you are familiar with the old wheeze about fish being spelled ghoti, with gh pronounced as in laugh, o as in women, and ti as in nation. It’s regularly attributed to Shaw, but no one has ever found it in his writings, and it turns out, as reported in an invigorating Language Log post by Ben Zimmer (now Executive Producer of—congratulations!), that that’s because it goes back before he was born, being attested in a letter dated December 11, 1855, to Leigh Hunt from his publisher Charles Ollier:

And here an experiment in orthography, which it may amuse some of our readers to carry further at this season of puzzles and charades, and kindred jovial perplexities:—”My son William has hit upon a new method of spelling Fish. As thus:—G.h.o.t.i., Ghoti, fish. Nonsense! say you. By no means, say I. It is perfectly vindicable orthography. You give it up? Well then, here is the proof. Gh is f, as in tough, rough, enough; o is i as in women; and ti is sh, as in mention, attention, &c. So that ghoti is fish.”

As Ben says, “it actually makes sense that ghoti made its earliest appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, when English orthographic reform was gaining popularity”; he quotes some far more ponderous examples of the same sort of jovial respellings from the period (showing, incidentally, that as of 1845 postvocalic /r/ was still pronounced in educated usage).
One thing that particularly pleased me was the discovery that the erroneous attribution to Shaw comes from Mario Pei, who Ben calls (with perhaps excessive kindness) “not always the most reliable source when it comes to language-related information.” Pei, like Bryson today, is enjoyable to read but not to be taken seriously as a source of facts.
Oh, and the Log now has comments (again)! Well done, chaps.


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Along the same lines is “psoloquoise” as a way to spell “circus”–“olo” as in “colonel” and “oise” as in “porpoise,” and the initial “p” is silent, as in “pshrimp.” (Hat tip: P. G. Wodehouse.)

  2. Who preonoun ces ‘women’ as ‘wimmen’?
    I pronounce the ‘o’ in ‘women’ the way I pronounce ‘oo’ in ‘good’. Somebody saying ‘wimmen’ would sound very uneducated to me.

  3. ‘preonoun ces’ meaning ‘pronounces’, of course.
    (As keyboards get smaller and smaller my typing gets weirder and weirder).

  4. I don’t know accurate the accents really are in the recent HBO “John Adams” series, but the actor playing King George III did pronounce post vocalic /r/ (and pronounced “I” almost like modern “oy”), so the producers were clearly trying to get across to viewers the idea that the accents of those days were not what we hear today.
    Also I find it personally interesting that young William equated the vowel of “fish” with the first vowel in “women.” Personally I think I produce “fish” with a more fronted sound, and “women” as almost a schwa, but maybe I’m lazy.

  5. Bob Helling says:

    Stephen, I think just about everyone pronounces women (the plural of woman) as wimmen. It sounds like you are pronouncing woman.
    I thought it was interesting that in the quoted text they talk about “sh, as in mention, attention.” I pronounce the ti in those words as ch.

  6. Stephen,
    How do you distinguish between the singular “woman” and the plural “women”?

  7. Bob Helling says:

    Okay, I already regret the “just about everyone comment” as vanya shows there can be variations. But I can’t remember hearing it ever pronounced other than wimmen.

  8. “showing, incidentally, that as of 1845 postvocalic /r/ was still pronounced in educated usage”
    Note that the same word also supports a different pronunciation of the long vowel sound than RP (“nEEther” rather than “nEYEthuh”)

  9. Like Bob, I can’t remember ever hearing it ever pronounced other than “wimmin” (I’d write it with two i‘s, not an i and an e). The OED has /wʊmən/ for “woman” and /wɪmɪn/ for “women,” and this matches how I’ve always heard them said.

  10. Bob: the American Dialect Society mailing list thread on Matthew Gordon’s discovery has some further discussion on the pronunciation of “ti” in “mention”/”attention”.

  11. Who preonounces ‘women’ as ‘wimmen’?
    As Bob says, just about everyone.
    I pronounce the ‘o’ in ‘women’ the way I pronounce ‘oo’ in ‘good’.
    Are you a native speaker? I have never heard, or heard of, anyone pronouncing it that way. The /i/ comes straight from Old English wifmen; to quote the OED, “From at least the 16th century, the only variety in the pronunciation of the pl. has been in respect of the quantity of the first vowel, which was either short or long in the 16th and 17th centuries.” The word is spelled with -o- by analogy with the singular.

  12. A few years ago, after first coming across ghoti, for a period of a few months, when I would think of it, I was filled with a strong feeling of dread, as if the world was somehow at a tilt, as if the angles of a Euclidian triangle no longer equaled 180 degrees.
    That passed.
    Since then my theory has been that the originator of ghoti was none other than the Great Cthulhu.
    Go ahead, prove me wrong.

  13. Jeremy Gaunt says:

    Reminds me of an old joke about a rather backward U.S. student who was told he could have a university football scholarship if he could spell at least one letter right in the word coffee. He came up with KAWPHY

  14. mollymooly says:

    Concur with the mob on wimmin.
    For me the first vowel in woman is that of STRUT rather than FOOT: the word rhymes with comin’ (as in, round the mountain). I was amazed when I first read in the OED that this is “vulgar dialectal”. Perhaps it is standard in Ireland, though I am not conscious of English or Americans using a different vowel. To my ears, /wʊmən/ sounds Scottish (or perhaps I mean, a noticeably Scottish woman — Kirsty Wark, say — sounds like /wʊmən/). I guess the preceding /w/ is messing with the phones, or with my ears.

  15. John Emerson says:

    And tonderceo would be pronounced “to” (from Cholmondeley and Worcester).

  16. Cholmondeley and Featherstonehaugh
    = chumly & fanshaw
    Makes one wonder if English is English, or if the world hasn’t been taken for a ride by the likes of Prunk and Strine.
    Makes one wonder, also, if those historical linguists who relate phonology directly to genetical language trees really know what they’re going on about.

  17. But:
    tonderceo would be pronounced “to” (from Cholmondeley and Worcester).

  18. rootlesscosmo says:

    tonderceo would be pronounced “to” (from Cholmondeley and Worcester).

    “onde” in Cholmondeley is silent; so is “rce” in “Worcester.” Thus t[silent letter string][silent leter string]o” = “to.”

  19. No, no. As a Mass resident I assure you, the “ce” in “Worcester” is pronounced. It’s the “s” that is silent.

  20. OT:
    I listened to an interview you did for NPR where you talked about your book about “bad words” and insults in different languages. What is the name of the book?? I can’t find the post and I can’t recall the book’s title.

  21. I grew up near a Worcester in South Africa. In Afrikaans it’s pronounced like in English (silent rce), except with a fricative w. This also happens to be a homonym of the Afrikaans for “rougher”, which, in this Worcester, is very apt.

  22. Daniela: here‘s the LH post, and here‘s the Elwin Street page. If and when the US edition appears, I’ll put a link in the LH sidebar.

  23. This struck me as very funny back when I was learning how to spell (or maybe immediately after I had learned how to spell): The spellings of “woman” and “women” differ in only one letter, the vowel of the first syllable; but the pronunciations of the two words (in my idiolect) differ only in the vowel of the second syllable. I say “wommin” and “wimmin” — as near as I can hear, I pronounce the second syllables of the two words exactly the same.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Since then my theory has been that the originator of ghoti was none other than the Great Cthulhu.

    Iä! Iä!
    However, it goes without saying that ghotI’ is “the most general word for a fish-like creature” in Klingon. Pronounced [ˈʁotʰɪʔ], except that the sources I’ve read and heard contradict each other on whether H and gh are velar or uvular.

  25. Cthulhu Fthagn!

  26. David Marjanović says:


  27. Cthulhu will eat the prescriptivists first.

  28. The spelling and pronunciation of ‘woman/women’ (spelling and pronunciation distinctions reside in different syllables) reminds me of the Japanese borrowing of the English words ‘trouble’ and ‘travel’.
    Trouble = トラブル (toraburu)
    Travel = トラベル (toraberu)
    As you can see, the distinction in the English is carried by ‘oub’ vs ‘av’ (i.e., ‘ub’ vs ‘av’). The distinction in Japanese mirrors the spelling distinction in the last syllable of the English (‘le’ vs ‘el’). It’s nothing short of amazing how katakana transliteration conventions completely miss the real sound distinction and make up for it with a non-existent one!

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Cthulhu will eat the prescriptivists first.

    This is a good reason to become a prescriptivist!!!

  30. Thippu Sulthan says:

    on seeing this page every one to discuss woman women pronunciation the word women is “v may in” woman”voomen”

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