Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Circular Definitions: What Makes "O" So Special

As a teacher, writer and editor, I spend a significant portion of my life reminding others (and myself) that certain pairs of words are not interchangeable, although they might seem to be. Now isn't the same as know, and affect can't pinch-hit for effect. Lose vs. loose is a particular frustration as of late. However, in all of my many years of teaching and writing, no one has ever asked me whether they ought to use O or oh, and this makes me sad.

Short as it is, O is one of my favorite words. Seeing that one letter on a page always makes me happy. I like its boldness; there aren't a lot of one-letter words that can stand by themselves and be as commanding. Certainly A doesn't get the job done. I like O's roundness too, the circle of eternity right there on the page, a welcome that I can't hope to achieve. Also, I associate O with the "O Antiphons," an ancient Christian text sung during the Advent season and celebrating the various qualities of the coming Christ child in beautiful language (e.g. "O come O key of David…"). The performance of these always sends chills down my spine. Finally, there's the rhetorical device of apostrophe, when a speaker breaks off from her declamation to address an object, an often imaginary person or an idea, sometimes beginning with one of those wonderful Os. (My favorite example is "Where, my death, is thy sting? Where, O death, thy victory?")

In fact, I love O so much that I went through a brief period in my adolescence in which I replaced all written Oh's with O's. This coincided with a poetry unit in my English class, so I hope I didn't seem entirely pretentious as I sprinkled my terrible sophomore poetry with Os. It wasn't until I rendered the song "Oh, Susanna" as, yes, "O Susannah" in Orchestra, however, that an adult, my teacher, stepped in and explained that O was almost always wrong and Oh almost always correct. "Except in church?" I asked, abashed. "Maybe," he replied, "but you're not trying to evoke Susannah." I had been taught. But, still, O thrilled me, even if I couldn't use it.

A Benefit of Higher Education

One of the happiest moments of my new academic career happened when I realized that I could access the Oxford English Dictionary online through my university's library. "Finally!" I thought. "Instead of trekking to the bowels of the public library to attract untoward attention by paging through the largest book in the reading room, I can answer all of my vocabulary questions from the comfort of my home!" It was a thrilling day at La Casa d'Reed.

So, with this luxury available, which of the many vocabulary bugaboos did I select as my first TBFO? (That's "To Be Figured Out," by the way.) Simple: Oh versus O. I typed in Oh to the OED and sat back to wait for enlightenment.

Oh, I See.  

After reading a densely-packed page on oh (as a noun or interjection, setting aside the verb form for the moment), my head was spinning…and then I realized I was reading a summary, not the full article yet. Oh, dear! I clicked and dug in, soon lost in a bevy of definitions and, especially, examples of how oh might be used.

I soon realized that my confusion stemmed from the changing English language – not personal stupidity, which is always a relief – for there was a time when O and Oh were used interchangeably "in all contexts," as the OED put it. This interchangeability  is found in some of the texts such as Renaissance plays, which used O or Oh to evoke deities. My work in theatre would have put me, however unwillingly, in contact with these works, composed long before the distinction began to make itself known in our language, predisposing me toward a fondness for O.

Today, oh is now an interjection used to express strong feeling, usually, as the OED notes, "pain, distress, regret, surprise, delight, [or] disapproval." It's also used for "optative phrases." I went scurrying down another rabbit hold to find out that "optative" means a sentence that evokes or contains a wish: Oh, I wish I could figure out which form to use! is a decent example.

Oh also intensifies, of course. Without constructions such as "oh-so-cute" and "oh-so-pretty" the fashion magazines would be out of business. There's no "o-so-" construction, apparently, not even in Chaucer.

And oh is also, finally, an exclamation. The OED tells us that it dates back to 1534, although I most like the entry from 1983, which reminds us that rock singers throw in an "oh, yeah" to pad out lyrics that need a few more syllables.

The Story of O

Turning our attention, then, to O, which has even more definitions than that of Oh. You can read about O' the prefix (to Irish last names), -O the suffix ("weirdo"),  and O the verb which means, delightfully, "to spangle with small, circular discs." (Be warned:  that meaning is considered "rare," before you start incorporating it in your daily use). I managed to drag myself away from these fascinating sidelights to focus on O as (again) a vocative.

It's quite old, O, dating back to classical Latin, Old French, Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, Early Irish, Old Welsh and Greek usages. The OED's first example is pulled from a saint's book dating to around 1225, but it's older than that. And O is multi-cultural too, "widely attested in non-Indo-European languages." In fact, it seems to be an instinctual use of language, easily said by most, and conveying meaning through nuance and placement.

However – O! Alas! – the use of O is now "chiefly poetical and rhetorical," dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

O, Lesson Learned!

Thus, it turns out that my high school usage of O, although perhaps charming to some, were out of synch with the rise of Oh over the last three hundred years. O has indeed been slowly but surely pushed to the margins, rarely used as an exclamation now, and really only expected in poetry and declamation (or declaiming of poetry). Perhaps the best plan for me is to write more poetry? Or find more reasons to bespangle my clothing  with circular discs? And what would I tell a student who asked which version to use? I suppose I'd have to advise toward Oh almost all of the time, although I might eagerly inquire whether they were writing new O antiphons.

But I enjoyed my wander through two comparatively short entries of the OED, and I suspect it won't be long before I'm poking around there again. What I liked most, in the end, wasn't that I found some sort of strict rule dictating what I could or could not do with language, but that I found the history of the words and could watch how their use changed over the parade of the centuries. Oh thank you, O, Gracious Source for the Logophile!


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 16th 2013, 3:48 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
You forgot to include beyond delight 'oh' expresses ecstasy!
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Gerard S. (Sittard Netherlands)
The use of O also permeates the Japanese language , where O is not merely a prefix but has agglutinated with the noun it modifies. O before these nouns evoke holiness , ritual, and particular importance. As an example
Okane meaning money, or ocha, meaning tea , very central in Japanese perceptions.
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
I think you almost O-verdosed me with laughter!
the Old guy
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Jean-Luc (San Jose, CA)
There is a wonderful British comedy around the theme of O'mophones. It delighted me in the 60's; it still does today. Enjoy the two Ronnies at their best on YouTube. Just type "the two ronnies fork handle". They are oh-so-funny.
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
Oh-so-entertaining and enlightening (in two senses). Thank you, and further good fortune to you as you play with words.
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent article, Sharon - I hope to read more from you! (By the way, at the end of the second paragraph, should that comma be before the O instead of after?)

[Fixed! But it's Shannon, not Sharon. —Ed.]
Wednesday October 16th 2013, 6:59 PM
Comment by: Ernest C. (Algonquin, IL)
And "The Wonderful O" by James Thurber. And the humiliation of Ophelia Oliver.
Thursday October 17th 2013, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
O Shannon with a O, my head is spinning like a O!
Monday October 21st 2013, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
Oh-O! This made me laugh so lard. We (my poetry group friends and I) fuss over this from time to time... I am now in possession of a new meaning for "O" which is as a verb meaning to spangle with little circular discs. Next poem about the starry night will have O as a verb... can hardly wait to try this!
Monday October 21st 2013, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
somehow "hard" became "lard" in my comment... O, how did that happen?

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