I Heart Indies

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

H, h November, The Alphabet Project

During November I will be blogging on etymology and the origin of the alphabet

H, h: From the Phonecian Khet “fence,” H’s status has always been marginal. The Greeks knocked off the top and bottom rails, calling it Eta (H) and changing the pronunciation from /k/ to /h/, finally changing it again to our equivalent of long /a/. The Latin alphabet restored the /h/ sound, but not without cavilers. In 500 AD the Latin grammarian Priscian claimed that H was not a true letter, a position was seconded in 1529 by Geoffory Tory, who nevertheless included it in the alphabet. In 1712, Michael Maittaire’s English Grammar attempted once more to strike H from the alphabet; however, by that time H had received the imprimatur from Ben Jonson’s more influential English Grammar (1640) so H was here to stay. The name “aitch” is from the French hache, “hatchet,” the lowercase H resembling an upside-down ax.

handicap: A plausible but mistaken etymology has it that this word derives from disabled beggars waiting “cap-in-hand,” but in reality handicap was a horseracing term hundreds of years before the euphemism for disability. Bettors held money in their caps as an ante while a neutral arbiter determined how much additional weight the superior horse had to carry, hence, a hand-in-cap race.

Hobson-Jobson, Law of: The tendency to corrupt exotic words to conform to familiar patterns. e.g., “oxycotton” for “oxytocin,” “Old-Timer’s” for “Alzheimers,” and “very close veins,” for “varicose veins.” (See hocus-pocus) British Soldiers in India corrupted as “Hobson-Jobson,” the Arabic cry, Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn! "Oh, Hassan! Oh, Husain!"

hocus-pocus: A jocular incantation, too foolish-sounding even for Vegas magicians. A corruption by disdainful Protestants, following the law of Hobson-Jobson, of the Latin formula, hoc est corpus meum, “This is my body,” spoken by Catholic priests at the moment the sacramental bread and wine is believed to transform into the body and blood of Christ.



  1. Have to point out that you're incorrect on "Hocus-Pocus". That...along with "Abra-Cadabra"...is one of those magical phrases capable of changing a vampire into a bat.
    If you mix them up..."Hocus-Cadabra"...for example...or "Abra-Ca-Pocus"...then you'll change a vampire into sort of a half-bat with a vampire's face.
    You should have learned that from Bugs Bunny.

  2. Wait a minute. I thought scrambled incantations, hocus-kadraba, ala-ka-pocus, if spoken in the presence of a witch, would send her through a series of transformations until she ended up as a disturbingly voluptuous rabbit, although still retaining her witch-like cackle. Which episodes were YOU watching?