Sure, spelling the word “onomatopoeia” might strike you out of the spelling bee, but don’t you love that this word exists that refers to words that were formed in imitation of the sound they refer to.
Boom. Squeak. Purr. Buzz.
And then there’s “hiccup.” Or is it “hiccough”? They’re both pronounced the same, a wonderful imitation of that involuntary noise that comes from a contraction in the diaphragm and a response in the vocal chord.
If you’re like me, there’s no question here. “Hiccup” must surely be the standard spelling, so why are we even discussing it?
But this isn’t the end of the story.
It doesn’t have much to do with a “cough,” but then again, there are no “cups” involved either.
Before we get to the spelling, though, I have to point out that the earliest form of this word derived from the Old English word ælfsogoða, because it was thought that the involuntary spasm was caused by elves. I love this. They weren’t necessarily evil elves or the demons that prompted a “God bless you” after a sneeze. But they were certainly up to something.
“Hiccup” was the first version of this word, appearing in the late 1500s, and it acted as both a noun and a verb from the start (i.e., one could have the hiccups, or one could hiccup).
“Hiccough,” it seems, stemmed from an assumed link between hiccuping and coughing—both noises made by the body, true, but they aren’t actually connected.
The Google Ngram that analyzes the popularity of “hiccup” vs. “hiccough” is actually fascinating. “Hiccup” was the first leader, with “hiccough” jumping into first place for a short time in the late 1600s. “Hiccup” returned to the more popular spot until 1736, where there was another “hiccough” fad that lasted just shy of a decade. It faded to the number two spot again until its last and most triumphant period, which was between 1849 and 1949—a full 100 years of “hiccough” glory—but since then, “hiccup” has been the clear favorite. “Hiccup” has had a few hiccups in its word history apparently.
Hiccup. It’s onomatopoeia in action. As for elves or no elves, you can decide.
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