You may have said this today, in frustration perhaps, or in anger. Maybe it wasn’t quite as long as that. Maybe it was just a quick, cathartic Argh! I’m sure it’s something we’ve all said at least a few times in our lives. Did you ever wonder why it’s spelled in such a strange way though?
Well, maybe it’s not actually so strange, because most of us probably don’t see it as strange. But if you think about it, the -rgh part isn’t really necessary, is it? If you wanted to really simplify it, A! would do, or at least maybe Aaa! or Ah! Why all the extra letters?
I think one of the main reasons is that A, aaa, or even ah, could be too ambiguous. Ah could be mild suprise or pain, sudden realisation, satisfaction, or a smitten reaction to a cute puppy. Argh though, even without any of the letters repeated, conveys a much stronger sense of force. It’s hard to really say why though, isn’t it? It feels a little more closed off and solid, just looking at it, as opposed to the softer and more open A or ah. It just looks tougher!
The effect isn’t just visual though. Even if the letters aren’t really pronounced, they still help to convey the sound of a shout. With a shout of fear, shock, or anger, there’s a throaty, guttural element to it. A simple aaah! doesn’t really get that across, does it? But simply adding those three letters at the end does. It gives a sense of the little bit of a growl a true shout has. The R makes sense because there often is at least a little bit of an R sound to a shout.
What is it about the gh that works though? I think it’s actually because that combination of letters doesn’t have a particular sound. Tough, though, through, etc. Because we don’t associate the letters with one specific sound, we’re able to easily imagine them doing whatever we need them to in a certain context representing that little bit of roughness that makes it a real ARRGGGHH!!!!!!!!!!
Not that I knew that when I was a child of course, reading comics, and finding myself bemused that all the characters kept exclaiming Argh!! I’ve mentioned before that I was somewhat pedantic and literal-minded in my youth, so I assumed the word was pronounced Arg. I knew no-one around me shouted like that, but I also couldn’t imagine that that was the standard spelling for a shout. I thought, because the comics were English, that maybe that was how people in England shouted, but I knew that couldn’t really be right.
There was no real point when I had an epiphany and realised what Argh was. Probably I just stopped reading comics and therefore didn’t encounter the word so much, then came across it a few years later and realised straight away what it obviously represented.
And probably right now at least one of you is thinking Oh… you don’t pronounce the G!? I’m glad I never said it out loud…