Hiccough

If you find yourself reading a 19th- or early 20th-century British novel, there’s a chance you’ll come across this word. And like me, there’s a chance you’ll make two incorrect assumptions about it.

  1. That it’s the original spelling of hiccup. But in fact, hiccup arose first, in the 16th century, and the first usage of hiccough wasn’t until the 17th century. The only reason it came about was that people mistakenly assumed that there was a link between the words hiccup and cough, and that it was therefore more “correct” to spell it that way.
  2. It’s pronounced as it looks: like hic placed before the word cough. But, somewhat illogically, it’s pronounced the exact same as hiccup. It seems that some people felt strongly enough about the supposed link between hiccup and cough that the spelling should be changed, but the pronunciation was so established that it stayed the same.

Isn’t it interesting that we can make such assumptions about words based on how they look? Hiccup seems so modern and informal, and yet it’s at least roughly 500 years old. And yet hiccough, which seems so much antiquated, is about 100 years newer than the original form. And its existence is based on assumptions just like the ones I and many others have made about the words.

So what have we learned today? You know what they say about making assumptions: be wary of it!

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