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Grammar: haitch or aitch?

So, is the letter H/h pronounced "haitch" or "aitch"? How do you spell it? Let's start with a little unpacking.

First, you won't find 'haitch' in the dictionary, only the correct spelling aitch. The name of the letter comes from Old French ache of the 1500s and first spelt so in English, when it was related to the Old English word ache, from æce. At this time it was pronounced "ache" or "aitch".

Then what occurred in the 1800s was that a peculiar thing happened, or should I say, 'appened. Men and women put on airs and began imitating the French practice of dropping the h- from the front of words, such as 'otel. 'orse, 'ouse, and 'ello 'arry! The English gentry called these bounders (19th-century slang) aitch-dropping types, who dropped their aitches.

Out of this wholesale lopping off of the normally aspirated aitches from words a la French came the (wh)ole mess of an hotel, an historic, an house corruption. And, thanks to all of this linguistic meddling came the inevitable backlash, the reinforcement of h-otel, h-orse, h-ouse, h-ello and H-arry.

As a result, aitch gained an h through folk etymology and many people made it h-aitch in both spelling and pronunciation. So, if you want to be correct, make it aitch in sound and spelling – but please be correct and make it 'a hotel' and 'a historic' while you are at it.

 


About the author

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.