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Most words work just fine in both everyday speech and written on the page/screen. There are a few spelling problems here and there, especially over proper nouns like Leicester, Worcester, or those crazy words like through and cough, that exist primarily to annoy children in their spelling tests.
But by and large the written word has spent centuries ensuring it can convey complex speech clearly, despite missing out on such vital oratorical tools as cadence (rising and falling), tone of voice, and timbre.
But it’s not foolproof, and there are words that just don’t make the jump. Here are four of them, and, by way of redressing the balance, a word that only seems to exist properly in writing.
This is the expression you make when you’re very pleased and feeling rowdy. All of the emphasis is on the second syllable, so it would be more correctly written as something like wa-HEY!, but even then, the introduction of a dash breaks the giddy flow of the word. Writing it wahey! as it often is in comics like the Beano, is just confusing. I spent years wondering what a “way-he” was. YEARS, I tell you.
Zhush or Joosh
Neither of the above spellings (the latter is said with a soft j, like you would use when speaking French) capture the sound of this word, and as yet, no definitive spelling has been chanced upon that does. When you want to take something well-used and familiar, and give it a bit of a spruce up; when you want to transform your workaday items and make them special and sparkly; when you want to take a dowdy nothing and turn it into a delightful something, you’re going to need to zhush it up. It’s a verb that means the same as primp or rejuvenate, and it only works when said out loud. On the page, on the screen, it looks like an intimate medical procedure.
Remember those ads for whoopee cushions you used to get in comics that advertised them as being able to provide “a real Bronx cheer”? That’s the noise I’m referring to. A fart noise, made with your tongue. Hugely effective in speech, next to useless written down. It’s a dilemma captured perfectly by this song, from Homer and Jethro:
If there is a teenager in your life, ask them a question. Any question, it doesn’t really matter: how was your day? What happened to those shoes I bought you? When will you be coming home? What are you doing in my house? The answer will be a noncommittal grunt along the lines of “Iunno” and a shrug. Parents of teenagers probably hear their beloved offspring use that word to the exclusion of all others, and yet no one ever writes it down. Teenagers will go to great lengths to avoid using the word you in written correspondence. Or the word very. But they’ll still diligently type out “I dunno” or even “don’t know” when they mean Iunno. The fools.
And finally, the word no one ever says aloud…
Bah! is an incredibly useful expression of written discontent, usually brought out at the moment you’ve given up battling against a thing you really don’t want to have to put up with. Put it in your social media conversations, use it in a text message, write it on a snarky note for your co-workers. People will feel a sense of connection with your raised emotions, they’ll feel a kinship with your stoicism under extreme duress. But whatever you do, don’t start using it in conversation. You’ll come across like a retired British general with a bad cough. Not an empathic position to take.
Go on then, what did we miss? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic