pshaw (was Re: possible antedate of indiscriminative "whatever"?)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Jul 23 16:40:02 UTC 2006

On 7/23/06, sagehen <sagehen at> wrote:
> Charles Doyle wrote:
> >I remember, in the 4th or 5th grade, encountering the word "pshaw" in a
> >spelling textbook (are those still called "spellers"?  Do they still
> >EXIST?).  Half a century later, I still have never heard anyone SAY
> >"pshaw"; I don't know how it would sound (in what dialect) or precisely
> >what it would mean . . . .
> The P is silent.  I don't think I've heard anyone say this since 1945, when
> my father, who used the expression "Oh, pshaw!" often, died.  He was born
> in 1878 in Ohio, so his idiolect exhibited a lot of 19th Cent features
> that were otherwise rarely heard in the middlewestern speech of my
> childhood.

I've only ever heard it used self-consciously as /p at SO/ ("puh-shaw"),
which I've always assumed to be a (jocular) spelling pronunciation --
something like pronouncing "tsk-tsk" as /tIsk tIsk/ or "tut-tut" as
/tVt tVt/, rather than with alveolar clicks. Most dictionaries give
/SO/ ("shaw") as the only option, but OED2 has /pSO/ and NOAD suggests
it as a variant by putting /p/ in parentheses before /SO/. I can see
how the interjection might have started that way (with the disdainful
/pS/ also giving rise to "pish" and "posh"), but that initial
consonant cluster must have stumped a lot of speakers, leading to the
reanalyses of /SO/ and /p at SO/.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list