Josna Rege

197. O, Oh, and the Wonderful O

In 1960s, 1980s, Books, Childhood, Education, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on April 17, 2013 at 11:57 pm
Illustration by Ronald Searle (1962 Puffin Books edition)

Illustration by Ronald Searle (1962 Puffin Books edition)

Years ago, while I was just starting my graduate studies, I attended a talk by the eminent scholar Christopher Ricks. I freely confess that I was able to take away very little from the lecture, but for one thing: the difference between O and Oh. He illustrated this difference with instances of each of their use in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.

According to the Grammarist, O is used as a poetic form of address (poetic apostrophe) and always precedes the name of the person being invoked (or the pronoun referring to that person). “O Beloved Guru,” one’s ideal student might say, “O Wise and Wonderful One, vouchsafe to us thy blessing as we go forth into the wide world.”

“Oh” is used much more commonly today. It is an “interjection used to express a range of emotions, including pain, sorrow, hesitation, and recognition. . .usually set off from its surrounding sentence by commas.” Take, for example, the opening lines from Browning’s Home Thoughts from Abroad:

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there. . .

Or—to descend from the sublime to the ridiculous—Sybil’s “Oh, I know” in Fawlty Towers.

But what O and Oh have in common is O itself, without which neither of them could even be uttered. James Thurber’s 1958 story, The Wonderful O, imagines, brilliantly, what it would be like to have to live without that most fulsome of vowels. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t yet come across this little gem, but suffice it to say that the benighted Island of Ooroo was reduced to a shadow of its former self, lovers could no longer spoon under the moon, and the unfortunate Otto Ott was reduced to a stutter. O was worth fighting for, and when it was recovered, the islanders learned to value their most precious treasure, previously taken for granted.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. Oh! A nice post. Christopher Ricks brings back some memories.

  2. Thank you! I’ve never known the difference but lucky for me, I only say (usually to my kids as I”m about to do something really stupid) “O ye of little faith.” …wait–maybe I’m still using O wrong…;) Fabulous post!

    • Thanks for your kind words. I love what you say to your kids; I must try it on my students! And I like your latest post on People. Will definitely make a return visit. Enjoy the rest of the Challenge.

  3. My favorite— “O, Thou Opening, O” by Theodore Roethke, opens:

    I’ll make it; but it may take me.
    The rat’s my phase.
    My left side’s tender.
    Read me the stream.

    Dazzle me, dizzy aphorist.
    Fling me a precept.
    I’m a draft sleeping by a stick;
    I’m lost in what I have.

  4. o josna fabulous, what oh what wonderfully, oh so gorgeous knowledges of o you have, oooouuoooh… bine

  5. Oh, what a wonderful post on the value of “O”.

  6. […] O, Oh, and The Wonderful O […]

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