A long time ago I read about this funny example posited by some relatively well-known author who spelled a word (I forget the word) in the most difficult way possible, but in a way that was totally congruent with orthographic rules from other words of English.

It was a simple word, like "fish" but he spelled it like "phystch" or something similarly absurd. It's a pedantic example, but sort of funny, too. Thanks

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 18:41

4 Answers 4


Ghoti (/fɪʃ/)

This fallacy arises from the incorrect application of the rules linking orthography to phonology1, resulting in an argument that 'ghoti' should be pronounced similarly to 'fish':

gh, pronounced [f] as in enough [ɪˈnʌf] or tough [tʌf];

o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women [ˈwɪmɪn]; and

ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation [ˈneɪ̯ʃən] or motion [ˈməʊʃən].

This is not a definitive list.

Key to the phenomenon is that the pronunciations of the constructed word's three parts are inconsistent with how they would be pronounced in those placements. To illustrate: gh can only resemble f when following the letters ou / au at the end of certain morphemes ("cough", "laugh"), while ti can only resemble sh when followed by the letters -on / -al ("confidential", "spatial") etc.

Also of interest is that at the time (around mid-1800s) many persons were intrigued with the 'Phonotypy and Phonography' of English, with Alexander J. Ellis presenting a number of absurd respellings, like turning scissors into 'schiesourrhce' by combining parts of schism, sieve, as, honour, myrrh and sacrifice. (Sacrifice was historically pronounced with a [z])

Source: Wikipedia, NY Times

1 Thanks to Azor-Ahai for confirming this. I originally thought it was an error with phonemes.

  • 33
    I think it's worth emphasising the erroneous part. It is simply not the case that you could spell fish this way since the use of these letters to represent these sounds is contextual and they would never, ever be pronounced this way in the given context. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 14:27
  • 1
    @PeterShaw - I'm just quoting the original. (Which wasn't George Bernard Shaw, it's first appearance was in 1855 in a letter) Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 16:50
  • 4
    Is it unusual that I pronounce the ti in "confidential" like ch, not sh? Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 19:01
  • 4
    @ToddWilcox no, that's extremely common in America.
    – Jasmine
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 20:46
  • 1
    This isn't strictly about the pronunciation of phonemes, all the phonemes in /fɪʃ/ are being pronounced as usual, rather this has to do with an incorrect application of the rules linking orthography to phonology. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 21:05

Another is ghoughphtheightteeau, which is pronounced potato.

Spacing it out: gh ough phth eigh tte eau

  • gh for P as in Hiccough
  • ough for O as in Dough
  • phth for T as in Phthisis
  • eigh for A as in Neighbour
  • tte for T as in Gazette
  • eau for O as in Plateau

Source: Internet Archive: www.etni.org.il/farside/potato.htm

  • 8
    I'm somewhat more wary of this one since I have never heard of "gh" being pronounced as "p" under any circumstances. I suppose it happens, since English is so weird and varied, but it kind of strains the bounds of credibility. ("hiccup" is how I've always known the word to be spelled when pronounced that way)
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 0:00
  • 5
    @DavidZ - It's an old Britishism. Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 3:04
  • 1
    Phth isn't pronounced 't' in Phthisis, it's pronounced 'th'. Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 9:00
  • @marcellothearcane Is there a reason why there is no /f/ in Phthisis? It being a technical term, I would have expected that those using it won't have difficulties with the "full" pronounciation ...?! Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 12:37
  • @HagenvonEitzen No idea, I wouldn't have thought it was an issue of difficulty, rather that's just how the language and words evolved (for example how did 'ph' become f in the first place? Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 13:02

"Ghoti" is typically attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the 'relatively well known author' (I am sure he would have objected to the "relatively"!). Wikipedia says:

The first confirmed use of the word is in a letter from Charles Ollier to Leigh Hunt. On the third page of that letter, dated 11 December 1855, Ollier explains, "My Son William has hit upon a new method of spelling 'Fish'." Ollier then demonstrates that "Ghoti is Fish.

An early known published reference dates to 1874, citing the above letter. The letter credits ghoti to William Ollier Jr. (born 1824). Ghoti is often cited to support the English spelling reform, and is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, a supporter of this cause. However, the word does not appear in Shaw's writings, and a biography of Shaw attributes it instead to an anonymous spelling reformer.

  • 5
    Some links would be nice. And not just to untrustworthy wikipedia. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 14:37
  • 23
    @Clare: Strange, you don't seem to object to the use of "untrustworthy" Wikipedia in the accepted answer.
    – DarkDust
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 15:17
  • 9
    @Clare: And why is Wikipedia less trustworthy than any other internet source?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 17:17
  • 10
    @alephzero: And anyone who wants to can put up a web site touting their crank theory-du-jour. The difference is that if something is on Wikipedia, it is likely to be noticed and eventually corrected, while the crank theory website is owned and modifiable only by the crank.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 19:22
  • 6
    @alephzero Wikipedia pages that are involved in edit wars or constantly being vandalized do not become definitive reference sources. Also, if you actually read the Wikipedia reference you will find the original, actual references from which the information was derived. If you doubt the information, simply check the references yourself. Not that anyone ever does, because we're all far too lazy and self-righteous to actually do such a thing.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 22:11

Another absurdity I came across is ceougholo. And it means SHOWER.

  • ce = sh as in "ocean"
  • ough = ow as in "bough"
  • olo = er as in "colonel"

Sure it is weird but it is what the question is asking about. "Ce" does not give the sh sound at the beginning of a word, and "olo" only gives the er in "colonel".

If we look at the "ghoti", gh never gives f sound at the beginning and ti never gives sh at the end. So both of these are just the examples of absurdities of English spelling.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.