O(h), O(h), O(h) It’s Magic, You Know

Is it “O Face” or “Oh Face”?

O, oh.  O is confined almost exclusively to religious and poetic contexts.  By convention it is always capitalized and never followed by punctuation.

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

James Joyce snuck it through, but good luck to anyone else using “O” in a way that isn’t all the worst kinds of self-aware. It’s kind of a shame, since “O” is appealing not just for its simplicity but also its utter symmetrical roundness. It looks like something Oddjob could throw and behead a stone statue.

So sometime in the middle 16th century “O” picked up an “h” on the end. The OED offers this in its “Oh” entry:

Etymology: Variant of O int., probably intended to express a longer or stronger sound.”

Longer and stronger sound. Ohhhhhhhhhh, I get it. Maybe. Still, why? What was wrong with “O”? Did someone decide something so elegant should be reserved for special occasions?

Thanks a lot! Even if it once did, the “h” no longer pulls its weight, perfectly illustrated here:

The “O” is carrying the honey, the grahams, the grains, everything… the lazy “h” is just along for the ride.

Although not quite the all-purpose Leatherman multi-tool that Yiddish has in “Nu”, O(h) is the most versatile morpheme available to us. Disappointment, surprise, enlightenment, Oh Face–you can have a whole day’s worth of agony and ecstasy with little else to express yourself. It’s an important word, and its aesthetically nicer version is off-limits in everyday writing.

Oh well.

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