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an horrific crime

July 7, 2020

Here’s Simon Tisdall on the Chinese government in last Sunday’s Observer: ‘the mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, reportedly including forced sterilisation and concentration camps that harvest inmates’ hair for export as beauty products, is an horrific crime against humanity.’

Amen to that sentiment – but ‘an horrific crime’? What’s with the an? The rule is that an is used before a vowel sound: but horrific does not start with a vowel sound (unless Simon Tisdall drops his aitches.) So Tisdall is breaking the rules – but why? What’s his motivation?

Here’s my hypothesis. Back in the day, it was Received Pronunciation for the word historic to have a silent h. Thus one said an ‘istoric day or an ‘istoric occasion, just as one would say an honest man or an hour ago. But then the pronunciation changed, in the mysterious way that pronunciations often do, and the h in historic returned. But many people who had only ever seen expressions like an historic occasion written down thought there was a convention to use an before the aspirate in this case; it seemed to add gravitas and specialness. I think Tisdall, unconsciously perhaps, is making an analogy with an historic; he thinks an horrific crime sounds more important and noteworthy than a horrific one.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    It’s a strange one. Would anyone ride an horse? Catch an haddock? Use an hockey stick?

  2. David Abbott permalink

    “George Smiley” said “is otel” in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Presumably playing a 65-year-old man in 1988 but the politics and story are mid seventies.(In the Simon Russel Beale period of BBC plays).

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    I always remember my father – who was charmingly old-fashioned and very particular about (certain) things – referring to ‘an hotel’. You are right, of course, Brandon, but I still feel a pang of affection for this one.

  4. Hi Mark. My dad did that too! And I never had the heart to correct him (I’m very glad to say).

  5. Mark Brafield permalink

    Postscript. I have just been reading ‘The Forsyte Saga’, and in the second novel in the sequence, ‘In Chancery’ (published 1920 but the story unfolding in 1900), Soames goes to Paris to try and persuade his estranged wife, Irene, to return to him. And he stays in – yes, you guessed it – ‘an hotel’. Although best known as a novelist nowadays, John Galsworthy practiced as a barrister, and I wonder whether that either made him more precise in his use of language, or more drawn to weighty phraseology. It would be interesting to know whether the ‘h’ of ‘hotel’ had become silent by this date and how this fits into our present discussion.

    Separately, the Saga is a cracking read. I was only vaguely aware of it because it was the landmark TV drama that everyone’s parents seemed to be talking about when we were young children, rather like ‘Downton Abbey’ nowadays. I picked it up out of curiosity a few weeks ago after reading a perceptive article in which it was pointed out how Galsworthy was broadly contemporary with Proust, but whilst Proust is now revered as a literary god, Galsworthy has, undeservedly, fallen by the wayside.

    Undeservedly indeed. He writes beautifully and tells a captivating story with great insight into the human heart. His characterisation, pacing and ability to draw you on are superb – he must have been riveting in the courtroom. It is hard to put it down, and once you do, you can’t wait until you can pick it up again. He isn’t in the same league as Proust, but if the thought of those endless sentences and neurotic aristocrats puts you off and you are just looking for a good read to see you through the summer, do think about the Saga.

    • Thanks, Mark. I too remember the Forsyth saga on a Sunday evening – I seem to recall some churches changed the time of evensong to avoid a clash! But I’ve never read it and now, on your recommendation, I will.

      Sent from my iPhone


      • Brandon Robshaw permalink

        PS I meant Forsyte!

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    That’s easy to say with hindsythe.

  7. Mark Brafield permalink

    Late postcript (24 October 2020); watching the Manchester United v Chelsea match this afternoon on Sky Sports, the commentator (the one who was not Gary Neville) said that the goalkeeper nearly made ‘an horrendous howler’. The match was terrible too.

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