The Grammarphobia Blog

Hic transit gloria

Q: Why did “hiccup” become “hiccough” even though the two words are pronounced the same?

A: When the word first appeared in English in the 16th century, it was written every which way – “hicket,” “hickot,” “hickop,” “hikup,” and so on – all onomatopoeic spellings of the sound itself.

“Hiccup” and “hiccough” showed up in the 17th century, but etymologists say the second spelling was apparently the result of a mistaken idea that hiccupping had something to do with coughing.

You might call this a hiccup in the history of English.

Note that I didn’t spell the word “hiccough” in the previous sentence, though many dictionaries now list that as an acceptable variant of the more common “hiccup.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says the variant “ought to be abandoned as a mere error.” I’m with the OED on this.

There’s a section about “hiccup” vs. “hiccough” in Origins of the Specious, the book about language myths that we wrote.

Check it out and learn about a guy from Pat’s home state of Iowa who had the longest hiccup attack on record­­ – from 1922 until 1990. Whoa, 68 years!

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