Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Dec 21 17:37:58 UTC 2006

On 12/21/06, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at> wrote:
> I would like to point out that "ghoti = fish" is two-thirds correct and one-third unfair.
> Yes, "gh" for /f/ in "laugh", "cough" etc. is, well, enuff is enuff, and "o" as /I/ in
> "women" is gender-neutral chauvinist pork.
> However, "ti" for /sh/ in any -tion word is quite acceptable.

I'd call "ghoti" 100% unfair, since <gh> never represents /f/
syllable-initially, <ti> never represents /S/ finally, and <o> never
represents [I] except in <women>. That's why it's so odd that a
linguist as reputable as Daniel Jones would have hauled it out as an
example of the irrationality of English spelling...

        A Hard Spell For Fish
        Professor Jones On Sounds And Letters
        The Times (UK), Nov 2, 1943, p. 2
        Dr. Daniel Jones, Professor of Phonetics in University
        College, London, speaking on "Reform of English Spelling,"
        astonished his audience at the college last night by
        suggesting the word "fish" could be spelled "ghoti."
        According to our present standards, he said, "gh" was the
        sound of "f" in "rough"; the letter "o" in "women" sounded
        like "i"; and "ti" in "nation" was like the last two
        letters in "fish."

As I suggested in sci.lang and alt.usage.english posts a couple of
years ago, the Times  probably exaggerated the significance of the
anecdote in its reporting. I doubt that Jones was making a serious
suggestion, and I doubt that the audience was astonished. Still, the
article evidently laid the groundwork for the later ascription of
"ghoti" to Shaw. (Jones and Shaw were probably linked in the public
consciousness by 1943  -- Jones was said to a model for Shaw's Henry
Higgins; they served together on the BBC's Advisory Committee on
Spoken English; they both took an interest in spelling reform).


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list