Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, February 14, 2017, at 2:03 pm

7 Comments on Words Can Be Bullies

7 responses to “Words Can Be Bullies”

  1. Jim Lynch says:

    Perhaps the “h” in “historic”, “hysterical” and “hotel” are pronounced in your world and maybe in Howard Cosell’s world as well, but in my world no one pronounces these words with a resonant “h.” I would really feel uncomfortable saying, “a hotel.” For example, “I’m gonna stay in anotel tonite” is the way I hear it and the way I say it.

  2. Steve AuBuchon says:

    I agree with you concerning the use of “a” and “an” before words beginning with “h.” However, I wonder what makes spoken English seem to lean toward using “an” before longer words beginning with “h.” I don’t think it is an effort to be self-important, as you suggest. I think it might be where the accent lies. “An” is slightly more accented than “a.” It is a little awkward to speak two accented or two unaccented syllables in a row, thus “AN heROic,” but “a HEro. Many words of three or more syllables are accented beyond the first syllable, making “an” flow off the tongue more easily than “a.” For example:
    AN hisTORic, but a HIStory
    AN hedonic, but a HEdon
    AN herBAceous, but a HERB (in England)
    AN herMITical, but a HERmit
    Once again, I am not saying these are correct. I am just saying this may be why the mistakes are made in spoken English. And by the way, I confess I probably would say “an hysterical child,” but I would never write it that way. I’m such a hypocrite! (Notice the accent in “hypocrite” is on the first syllable even though it is a three-syllable word, and “a” sounds just fine.)

  3. Mary Hentschel says:

    What is correct please? In noting the head of a convention committee I state Chairman. However, when stating more than one person (such as John Doe and Marie Coe, is it correct still to use Chairman, or Chairmen?

    Thank you!

  4. Abdullah Mahrouse says:

    Which of the following is grammatically correct? with reference, if you please.
    1. It’s she who broke the window.
    2. It’s her that broke the window.
    3. Who broke the window? It’s she.
    4. Who broke the window? It’s her.

    Thank you very much

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