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The word "sh" (or "shh") is an exclamation for silence:

Shh! They're listening...

Etymonline only mentions a date (1847) and the common practice of "putting a finger to the lips." Does anyone else have more information about its origin?

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In Italian we say "shhh!" There must be a common root, but I can't find anything :| – Alenanno May 10 '11 at 9:58
@Alenanno - when I was in the Sistine Chapel, what I heard the security guards keep saying was "sssss" rather than "shhh" - it was an extremely annoying sound! – neil Aug 20 '12 at 12:17
@neil Oh yes, there's that variant. And it's annoying as hell! :D – Alenanno Aug 20 '12 at 12:19
@neil: It is rather curious that this is used to urge someone to be silent, as the 's' and 'sh' sound is heard over most other spoken sounds. So it makes more sound to tell someone to be quiet than the original offence. In choirs, the singers are often told to dampen 's' sounds, and even not sing them at all (just leave it to one or two people). – awe Oct 1 '12 at 13:12
@awe: It would need to be loud to overcome the noise from the person you want to silence. Otherwise, how would they hear it? That being said, de-s'ing vocalists is truly a pain I know from experience. Not a trivial task without the proper equipment. – MrHen Oct 1 '12 at 15:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Many words which mean "silence, please" have the digraph 'sh'. E.g. hush and shush.

The origin of all these words however, was the Middle English word huisst(pronounced "wheesht"), which originated in round about 1350–1400A.D. Huisst as expected, meant "silence, peace".

The Scottish plea for silence also includes the 'sh' digraph: wheesht.

The sound for signalling a desire for quiet has long been associated with the sound 'sh'.

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It's been a while since I read the book, but Fredrik Lindström's "Jordens smartaste ord" (ISBN: 9789100580360) discusses the word "shh" in depth and posits it's the only word common to all human languages. It's even present in languages that don't use the sound.

Since it's been so long since I read the book, I don't know his sources.

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Hm. I only have Världens dåligaste språk, so I can’t check… but it seems rather like an overstated, unchecked factoid to say that ‘shh’ is common to all human languages. I sincerely doubt it is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 at 14:19

An answer for which I do not have a source, but is worth consideration, is that the sound "shhh" is soothing to babies, perhaps because it imitates the sounds in the womb.

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Could be related to


Which has been around since the 1600s

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Taking an educated guess here:

If you want to silence somebody by means of sound, you usually want to make a sound that is audible to a close addressee but not to somebody further away (whom you do not want to hear you).

The latter excludes low-frequency vowels and voiced consonants as they contain low-frequency sounds which are carried well over distance and barriers (there is a reason why you devoice when whispering). It also excludes high-frequency vowels and plosives (stop consonants) as they stand out against ambient sounds (at least, if you want them to be audible by the addressee). For the same reason, you also want to exclude using more than one sound/phoneme.

When restricting ourselves to the English phoneme repertoire, this leaves us with fff, hhh, sss, shh and thh (IPA: f, h, s, ʃ, θ). Of these, hhh is confusable with abnormal breathing and (in my personal opinion) fff, sss and thh stand out more against ambient sound than shh, which is acustically similar to white noise.

Thus, shh seems the most logical sound to use for such a purpose.

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Plosives ‘stand out against’ ambient sounds? How so, exactly? A simple [p] doesn’t really stand out against any ambient sound to my ear—in fact, I’d consider it quite unsuitable to hush someone because it blends in so well that it’s pretty much inaudible. Hushing sounds kind of need to be continuants to be very useful. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 at 14:23
@JanusBahsJacquet: Well, I guess, it all boils down to what you consider the default intensity of a single [p] (which is pretty much left to opinion as we do not use this in everyday language), but I think we can agree that if the [p] is pronounced loud enough to be audible by the addressee, it would also stand out against ambient sound. – Wrzlprmft Sep 30 at 14:44

protected by tchrist Oct 1 '12 at 13:21

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