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 VisualThesaurus.com—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.