Free the word: on the huh
For the next blog post in the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Suffolk’s chosen phrase, which will be the subject of a poem by Rebecca Watts.
on the huh phr. lopsided, askew.
Whilst some words such as ‘geg in’ are relatively recent additions to a region’s vocabulary, ‘on the huh’ has its roots in Old English. ‘Wough’ is an Old English word meaning ‘wrong, evil, harm’ and is found in the phrase ‘on wough’ to mean ‘unjustly, wrongfully, in error’ and later ‘askew, awry’. The unaccented prefix ‘on-’ was reduced to ‘a-’, giving rise to variants such as ‘awough’, ‘awoh’, ‘ahoo’, and ‘ahuh’.
Following the Old English period the word in all its forms doesn’t resurface until the 19th century where it is usually found in collocation with ‘all’. The form ‘ahoo’ originally appears in naval contexts, so a work of 1828 describes a person whose ‘head, however, was all ahoo, and topped to port’ and an 1883 issue of the magazine United Service describes someone who is ‘all ahoo, like a midshipman’s kit’. ‘Ahoo’ in the sense ‘askew, awry, disordered’ is still current in American English; for example, it is used by Chris Adrian in his 2004 short story ‘A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death’: “I can see him perfectly with my eyes still closed: his hair all ahoo.”
The variant ‘ahuh’ takes a different course, being found in regional dialects in England. So in 1854 the expressions ‘you’ve put your shawl on all ahuh’ and ‘that rick stands all ahuh’ were recorded in Northamptonshire, and a century later, fieldworkers in Berkshire received the reply ‘all ahuh’ when they asked ‘A picture not hanging straight, is hanging…’
The phrases ‘all ahuh’ and ‘all ahoo’ were often reanalysed, with the prefix ‘a-’ being taken for the indefinite article. This in turn gave rise to the expressions ‘all of a huh’ and ‘all of one huh’ and later ‘on the huh’. ‘On the huh’ is now the usual phrase in which the noun ‘huh’ is found and its use is now restricted to Norfolk and Suffolk, where it is still going strong.
So, in 2011 a journalist in the Eastern Daily Press describes how they ‘cannot even..put a shelf up “on the huh”’ and in 2016 a Twitter user in Suffolk tweets:
My christmas trees are ‘on the huh’ and I haven’t had a drop of alcohol 😃
— Rachael Oliver (@RacheOlly) December 10, 2016
Looking at current examples of the phrase we can see that alcohol is often a cause of people and things being ‘on the huh’ and indeed it is the name of a beer produced by the Norfolk brewery Beeston.
Image credit: chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com