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Recently I've noticed that many people are pronouncing the word 'height' as

/haiθ/

That's right, heigth.

I've only ever heard this pronunciation mistake in the last few years. Maybe it's just an issue in Texas? Has anyone else noticed this?

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It's heighth, not heigth. A declining usage, where Texas seems to be a couple of centuries behind the rest of us. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 23:36
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I don't get it...is it the pronunciation or the spelling that's in question here? And if the pronunciation, what exactly is it? 'hie - t - th' or 'hie - th' or 'hie- th -t' or something else? –  Mitch Dec 13 '11 at 23:49
    
@Mitch Pronounciation (see tag) and 'hie - th' –  Dave Dec 13 '11 at 23:55
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The Texas pronunciation is not /haiθ/, but /haitθ/ (or /hait̪ʰ/ might be more accurate). –  MετάEd Sep 26 '12 at 3:50
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I just want to second MετάEd's observation about the pronunciation /haitθ/. I grew up in southeast Texas (Corpus Christi and Houston) and I don't remember ever having heard the pronunciation /haiθ/. Among speakers—both white and black—who used the θ sound at all (and they were a small, but by no means negligible minority), it came after a t that was every bit as distinct as the d in width. –  Sven Yargs May 11 at 19:29
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5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted
+100

Heighth is no error

It is a misunderstanding that the spelling or pronunciation of heighth is an illiterate and uneducated error. Although many wrongly consider it such, history is not on their side, nor are the better dictionaries.

Despite how in particular over the last century the heighth spelling has come to be stigmatized, heighth is a perfectly legitimate word of ancient lineage. It was used not only by Shakespeare and Milton, but even by Charles Dickens, who wrote considerably later than the first two.

The spelling that is no longer used is hight, although it was once common. Interestingly, Shakespeare variously employed not only height and heighth but also hight, depending on the work:

  • 1591 Shaks. Two Gentlemen from Verona, ɪᴠ. iv. 169 — I know she is about my height.
  • 1594 Shaks. Richard III, ɪ. iii. 41 — I feare our happinesse is at the height.
  • circa 1600 Shaks. Sonnet xxxii — Exceeded by the hight of happier men.
  • 1606 Shaks. Anthony & Cleopatra ɪɪɪ. x. 21 — Anthony..Leauing the Fight in heighth, flyes after her.
  • 1606 Shaks. Troilus & Cressida, ᴠ. i. 3 — Let vs Feast him to the hight.
  • 1613 Shaks. Henry VIII, ɪ. ii. 214 — By day and night Hee’s Traytor to th’ height.

Editions of Anthony & Cleopatra with normalized spellings now generally read:

The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing and, like a doting mallard
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.
I never saw an action of such shame.
Experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before
Did violate so itself.

The thing to understand, though, is that this is not some spelling that died out when the reign of Elizabeth I came to an end. It remained in use by writers of unimpeachable integrity up through the 19th century and sometimes even into the early 20th.

All three forms of the word — height, heighth, hight — were long used, but in truth, only the last of those has completely fallen away. For while the OED no longer admits hight as a modern spelling, it does present both height and heighth as admissible variants, with -th listed second. In its rather long etymology section on this word, it observes (bold emphasis mine):

In ME. the forms in -t were predominant in the north, and since 1500 have increasingly prevailed in the literary language; though heighth, highth were abundant in southern writers till the 18th c., and are still affected by some.

So if you don’t mind being falsely accused of being wrong, or perhaps with somewhat stronger evidence of writing in an affected manner, go ahead and use it. After all, Microsoft doesn’t know everything about English, so you should never trust its software in matters of writing. :)

Here sorted by date are the OED citations for the heighth spelling, excepting only those already given:

  • 1548 Hall Chron., Hen. VIII, 77 — The same Trees were..in heighth from the foote to the toppe .xxxiiii. foote of assise.

  • 1590 Sir J. Smyth Disc. Weapons 18 b, — Bullets for the field being smaller and lower..than the heighths of the peeces by a bore.

  • 1611 B. Jonson Catiline iii. iv, — The heighth of wickednesse.

  • 1672 Bp. Patrick Dev. Chr. (1676) 258 — O the heighth, the depth, the breadth of thy love in Christ Jesus.

  • 1697 Dampier Voy. I. 370 — Now was the heighth of the Easterly Monsoon.

  • 1704 in B. Church Hist. Philip’s War (1867) II. 164 — Carrying the Remainder into Captivity in the heighth of Winter.

  • 1714 Swift Pres. St. Affairs Wks. 1755 II. i. 210 — Those who professed the heighth of what is called the church principle.

  • 1756 Burke Subl. & B. ii. x, — The Medium betwixt an excessive length or heighth and a short or broken quantity.

  • 1762 Gentl. Mag. 142 — To such a heighth is licentiousness risen.

  • 1765 T. Hutchinson Hist. Mass. I. 57 — Carrying antinomianism to the heighth.

  • 1809 Roland Fencing 22 — It depends on the person’s heighth.

  • 1918 H. Bindloss Agatha’s Fortune xxv, — It was hardly a range of hills, but rather what prospectors call a ‘heighth’ of land.

What the Dickens!

But that’s not all. Consider the Charles Dickens story “Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions”, published in 1865:

The doctor having accepted a tea-tray, you’ll guess that my father was a Cheap Jack before me. You are right. He was. It was a pretty tray. It represented a large lady going along a serpentining up-hill gravel-walk, to attend a little church. Two swans had likewise come astray with the same intentions. When I call her a large lady, I don’t mean in point of breadth, for there she fell below my views, but she more than made it up in heighth; her heighth and slimness was—in short THE heighth of both.

As you see, that sounds perfectly fine. Please note that modern editions of that work are not respelled as so often now occurs with Shakespeare. Heighth is retained just as Dickens wrote it.

Notice also how in the Dickens citation, heighth has a distinct advantage when used in conjunction with breadth or length, since now one retains a certain parallelism of form that would be lost were it spelled height.

Recommendation

That said, I personally would not in general recommend writing heighth unless you are writing a period piece. I say this not out of correctness, but to fend off the hypercorrective efforts of those with less education, given how few today realize its actual provenance and legitimacy.

If you do choose to use heighth, however, you should probably be prepared to back up your use at the very least with the OED, which attaches no stigma to that spelling, and probably with citations from other writers of note.

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1  
This is an incredibly scholarly post (bravo; brilliant). But all you're saying is "Funnily enough, heighth is an archaic pronunciation." But (no offence) ... so what? I could give 1000 examples of archaic pronunciations that are utterly, hopelessly, wrong today (I'm sure you could give 10,000 examples!) –  Joe Blow May 12 at 6:57
    
@JoeBlow I’m afraid that you’ve quite missed the point; please see the title of my posting. Although this is a venerable pronunciation of ancient pedigree, it is absolutely not “utterly, hopelessly, wrong” today. The OED attaches no more stigma to the spelling or pronunciation that to say “and is still affected by some today”. Heighth is not marked obsolete, archaic, dialectal, nor vulgar — all appellations they do not hesitate to use for words that merit them. This one does not. –  tchrist May 12 at 13:08
    
Hey! The OED are a bunch of drunks, so set that aside. I guess I could rephrase then -- You're saying "Funnily enough, heighth is an archaic pronunciation which in my opinion is still active; the OED agrees with me." As I said to another writer below, and I could say to you, "You and I "really" know what decimate, apocryphal and myriad mean, but all three have been turned on their head." All three would have "our" definition in the OED. –  Joe Blow May 12 at 13:34
    
I was interested to see a couple reports below from folks pointing out that their Aunt, etc, has used heigth. Fair enough. {An interesting point though: I'd guess our OP's route to this question was "aks-English", people who say aks and b[r]ought, are now saying heigth: ie, I'd guess it's just a coincidence that "heigth" is a ye olde spelling. [As if for example there was really a word aks.]} –  Joe Blow May 12 at 13:39
    
{And just BTW, in engineering I would use "heigth" as an iterator index over objects of different heights! :) example, you're the 3rd tallest, your heigth is "3".} –  Joe Blow May 12 at 13:41
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Well, it seems that the misconception regarding the spelling/pronunciation is due to some confusion regarding dimension-related words:

  • Depth
  • Width
  • Breadth

And....

  • Height

I have some links that would suggest that this is the reason for the misuse.

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3  
And... Weight. That should counteract it! I don't hear people saying weigth. –  Dave Dec 13 '11 at 23:45
    
@Dave: I think it's because the others are all measurements of length but weight is not. One often talks about height/width/length as a group. –  Lynn Dec 14 '11 at 1:30
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Height and weight is probably more common –  Dave Dec 14 '11 at 1:43
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@Dave: Height and weight is more common in terms of human proportions, but I'm not sure it's more common in general. I don't see people saying "Height(h) and weight", but I do see them saying "Length and height(h)." But maybe it's just a regional thing. –  Lynn Dec 14 '11 at 15:39
    
’Tisn’t actually a “misuse”, per se. See below. –  tchrist May 11 at 0:54
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On his World Wide Words website, etymologist Michael Quinion describes the phenomenon and its origins here:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hei1.htm

He sums up its current status thus:

Because of its odd history, we can hardly argue that highth is truly an error, more an archaism. Though nearly everyone now spells it height, it’s not that uncommon to hear it said as /haɪtθ/ [1] among educated people in North America, and some authorities there consider it to be a permissible variant.

[1] Pronunciation help is provided here:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/pronguide.htm

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A couple of points: why do you assume it to be a mispronunciation? It used to be common in my youth in New Zealand, where we speak British English. It started to fall out of use around the end of World War Two, when American English became popular, due mainly to Hollywood influences. It goes back at least as far as 1588.

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Please qualify your statement with some evidence. See the comments below the question. –  coleopterist Aug 29 '12 at 7:20
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I feel it is a "dialectical variant" and there are sufficient proofs that it is simply a popular mispronunciation the educated population have grown too tired of correcting. Just because a mispronunciation has become commonly used doesn't make it a legitimate word.

"Heighth" is a chiefly dialectal variant of "height".

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Have you really read nothing that Erik Kowal and I have written and referenced that you should make such an indefensible statement of bald-faced unsubstantiated opinion as you have just done? If anything, it is that the educated people have grown tired of forever correcting the undereducated people’s erroneous hypercorrections. It is for good reason that it is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, for in this it is better to remain silent and be believed ignorant than to open one’s mouth and thereby remove all doubt. –  tchrist May 12 at 4:07
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