On Language on Heck

Sun Feb 12 20:59:12 UTC 2006

        Safire writes today about "heck," which he says "appeared during
our Civil War and was popularized by novelists in the first third of the
20th century."  Actually, M-W has 1887, which does not necessarily
undercut Safire's assertions that the term (1) dates from the 1860s, (2)
has an origin in the United States, and (3) was popularized by a
literary process.  But I think he's wrong on all three counts.  Here's a
use from 1854:

        <<We drove all over Edinburgh, up to the castle, to the
university, to Holyrood, to the hospitals, and through many of the
principal streets, amid shouts, and smiles, and greetings.  Some boys
amused me very much by their pertinacious attempts to keep up with the

        "Heck," says one of them, "that's _her;_ see the _courls_.">>

1 Stowe, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands 81 (1854) (via Making of
America).  It is possible, of course, that Stowe chose to use an
American euphemism for the Scottish boys' actual exclamation.

        I do not have any concrete evidence for my belief that novelists
did not play the primary role in popularizing the term, but it seems
unlikely to me that the many illiterate and semi-literate people I knew
who used "heck" frequently in the 1960s would have gotten the word from
books.  More likely the novelists simply reflected the word's increasing
popular usage.

John Baker

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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