Mark Liberman at the Log has a post about an interesting fact I was unaware of: the name of the H0/HO scale of model railway is from “half zero.” Accordingly, the Wikipedia talk page contains a vigorous prescriptivist (“The correct name is ‘H0’ or ‘half zero’; Google only shows that most people do it wrong”) versus descriptivist (“You seem to have forgotten that what was and what is are two separate situations. Your argument is the same as arguing that if a word is a Latin derivative, then it is still a Latin word and should be spelled the same”) debate. I’m sure you can guess which side I come down on.

Totally unrelated, but a comment by Christopher Squire on Pepys’ Diary explains an interesting premodern usage by quoting the OED:

pragmatical, adj. and n.

. . 3.a. Officious, meddlesome, interfering; intrusive. Obs.

. . b. Conceited, self-important, pompous; opinionated; dogmatic, unbending.
1660 H. More Explan. Myst. Godliness iv. xiii. 131 The leguleious Cavils of some Pragmatical Pettifoggers.
1668 J. Glanvill Blow at Mod. Sadducism Pref. sig. A2, With a pert and pragmatical Insolence, they censure all.
1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 481. ¶4 Lacqueys were never so saucy and pragmatical, as they are now-a-days.
1724 Swift Let. to Molesworth 2 Which‥ may perhaps give me the Title of Pragmatical and Overweening.
1779 F. Burney Let. 25 Oct.–3 Nov. in L. E. Troide & S. J. Cooke Early Jrnls. & Lett. Fanny Burney (1994) 407 His extreme pomposity,—the solemn stiffness of his Person‥& the quaint importance of his delivery,—are‥ like some Pragmatical‥ old Coxcomb represented on the stage.’

As Christopher says, “A useful word which has gone out of use for some reason tho’ the type it describes is still with us.”


  1. I liked this comment by Sobeita: “After reading this article’s arguments, I find overwhelming evidence suggesting that “aitch oh” is the intended pronunciation and therefore the correct spelling: HO. I also propose we change 5-0 to 5-O, 90210 to 9O21O, etc.”
    There are definitely too many people arguing (incorrectly) that the “oh” pronunciation is relevant to how it should be spelled.

  2. Jack [Aubrey] moved forward to the rail and looked down into the waist of the ship. There he saw what he expected to see, some of the younger midshipmen learning the fine points of their craft — long-splicing to leeward, a complex system of pointing to windward, and just beneath him [midshipman] Horatio Hanson was being shown some elementary skills such as sheet-bend, bowline, clove-hitch and rolling hitch by Joe Plaice, his recently-appointed sea-daddy, already horribly loquacious and didactic, though good-natured with it all.
    ‘Mr. Hanson,’ he called.
    ‘Sir?’ cried Horatio, dropping his fid and running up the ladder.
    ‘How do you feel at present?’ asked Jack, looking at him attentively.
    ‘Very well, sir, I thank you. Prime,’ he said, standing straight, his hands behind his back.
    In a private tone Jack went on, ‘You do mind my words about a first-voyager being meek and mute in the berth, I trust?’
    ‘Oh yes, sir,’ said Horatio, blushing. ‘But, sir, you did say that I did not have to put up with everything, however gross.’
    ‘Perhaps I did.’
    ‘So when a — a shipmate — called me a pragmatical son of a bitch, I thought I had to resent it.’
    ‘Not a superior officer? Just a member of the berth?’
    ‘Yes, sir.’
    ‘Then of course you had to resent it. Show me your hands. Turn them over.’ It must have been a heavy left-handed blow to split the skin to that extent. Jack shook his head. ‘No, no: it will not do. I doubt anyone else in the berth will speak to you like that again — a gentlemanly lot, upon the whole: but if it should happen you must say, “Blackguard me as much as ever you choose: the Captain has tied my hands.'”
    ‘Yes, sir,’ said the boy, with proper deference and a total want of conviction.
         —Patrick O’Brian, Blue At The Mizzen

  3. One of the children in E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers is called HO. In that case it’s short for Horatio Octavius, but as a child I always thought HO must be quite a cool name to have.

  4. The thing I find interesting is that, having read that article a couple days ago, I learned something new that I had absolutely no inkling of at all—there is a standard sizing scheme for model trains, that scheme is 1:87 and change, that scheme is half the previous model, called 0, and is therefore called H0, for half-0—and given that the foregoing was and is the sum of my knowledge, I am actually perfectly happy thinking of it as H0 and not HO. I am entirely unexposed to this O usage, I have no personal associations with it, and I have no peers to influence me. So the only thing I’m going on is my knowledge of the facts above, which makes me think of it as H0. I suppose if I became a model enthusiast and found myself exposed to ridicule whenever I said H0 I might change my ways, but that’s pure speculation. Does that make me a crypto-descripto-prescriptivist? I know not.

  5. araucaria says

    Serendipitously, xkcd had a cartoon on this very topic yesterday (hold the mouse over the drawing to see the comment).

  6. In England in the early 60s when I was young, every boy had a Hornby Dublo (for “double-O”) train set. Everyone except me, because my mother couldn’t afford it. Now I could afford it, but I don’t want it.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    It struck me that this ambiguity is the result of us not using the Euro-style “slashed zero.” But wikipedia reminds me that that causes ambiguities of its own for the Danes and Norwegians. I am just old enough to have been exposed to typewriters that did not distinguish between “1” and “l,” but I’m not sure if any comical controversies resulted from that ambiguity.

  8. Serendipitously, xkcd had a cartoon on this very topic yesterday
    If you’ll visit the Log post linked in my first sentence, you’ll find it’s not serendipitous at all.

  9. In model railroading you say “Oh” for the letter “O”–O Gauge…you then say Haitch Letter O for HO–the half-O-gauge distance between rails. But, yes, the original O-Gauge was used by the Marklin Toy Co. in Germany who were famous back in the early part of the 20th Century for their 3-rail electric train copies of the many electric railroads running through Germany and Switzerland back then–electric-powered trains in this country were referred to as “juice lines”–electromotive power was experimented with by Henry Ford and actually developed by General Electric’s Electromotive Division–the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railroad–the railroad owned by John D. Rockefeller’s Anaconda Copper Mine–was the US’s first completely “Wired” railroad–using box-cab electrics as their locomotion.
    The next model railroad gauge down from HO is the N-scale, which is half a half zero down from HO–though I’ve even seen a Z scale. What could that N stand for? Nano scale?
    (coming up on our 5th anniversary at the Growler)

  10. What could that N stand for?

  11. In the 1980s, at least in the UK, when newspapers were first going over to computerised direct imputting, where there was no real intermediary between the reporter’s keystrokes and what appeared in the paper, unlike the days of hot metal printing, it was common to see newspaper stories where l had been used for 1 and O for 0, eg “lO years ago”, because the reporter who wrote the story was old enough to have trained on a typewriter which did not have a 1 key or a 0 key and still used l for 1 even on a computer keyboard, and the sub-editor who checked the reporter’s copy failed to spot the error.

  12. @J. W. Brewer: The slashed zero was more common on the older computers that I used (the dashed zero seems to have supplanted the other forms, at least on the default character sets in text mode.) Fortunately I never had to use the IBM mainframe terminals that messed up and put the slash on the ‘O’s, although I heard about that little quirk before!
    Regarding the word ‘pragmatical’, it led me to the wrong conclusion. Because something that is pragmatic is concerned more with the ends than with the means, my guess before reading the definition was that ‘pragmatical’ would be applied to an idea, not a person! You learn something new every day, I guess.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I frankly had not known that “pragmatical,” as distinguished from “pragmatic,” had a specifically pejorative meaning. This sheds a new light on the Yeats line about “this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world.”

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    I probably mentioned this in another thread, but hey necromancy!

    Whatever process Google uses to input road signs to Google Maps, it reads the special ring road symbol on Danish ones as a letter O — with the result that ◯4s, properly “ring four south,” is read out as “Oh 4 seconds”. You get used to it.

  15. January First-of-May says

    A useful word which has gone out of use for some reason tho’ the type it describes is still with us

    …these days the word for this type seems to be “Karen”.

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