There’s an old saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait a bit—it’s likely to change. I think the same can be said of English language. The only thing that’s constant is that it changes, so if you don’t like the rules, give it a few decades and maybe the winds will shift in your favor.
Today’s match up for Which Word Wednesday is an example of this. Alternate spellings and pronunciations abound for this word that The Oxford American Dictionary defines as “the measurement from base to top or (of a standing person) from head to foot.” Some people say height and others say heighth—but which is correct? We are not left to cast lots, however. We have resources to clear the confusion.
Dave Dowling tells us in The Wrong Word Dictionary that “the correct spelling today is height, though years ago the word ended in th.”1 The Oxford American Dictionary supports Dowling. Height is listed, but heighth is not.
So where did heighth come from and where did the h go? I believe that heighth got its extra h because we pair it so often with width. We like things to rhyme, don’t we? But I found some professional insight in The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster:
It is incorrect to pronounce height with a th sound at the end. . . . [These] vestigial pronunciations from the 17th and 18th centuries, when several variants were in common use. . . . ‘Height (which has been by far the most frequent written form since 1500),’ . . . and modern authorities and cultivated speakers do not countenance these pronunciations.2
What’s my WWW verdict? Using heighth is sort of like writing your dates with an ordinal (i.e., September 14th, which would be pronounced September fourteenth-th)—there’s no need for the extra syllable. Height will do. Besides, there’s no h on the end—if you say heighth you are giving voice to phantom letters that don’t even exist.
What’s your verdict? Do you say height or heighth? Do share in the comments.
Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.
1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 122.
2. Charles Harrington Elster, The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 193–94.