Phun with spelling: It's a grand American custom, OK?

From phat to phood to pharming, 'ph' is starting to make f-words fade away

Phor the Record

April 25, 2004|By Charles Storch | Charles Storch,Chicago Tribune

Not so phast. Perfectly good English words are getting a meaning makeover when their beginning letter f is substituted with ph. Think of phat, phishing and phood and you might wonder what the ph is going on.

To make it more vexing, there seems no common explanation for the respellings.

Phat, meaning very good, excellent or sexy, is said to be African-American argot dating to at least 1963, although some late to the party have made a vulgar acronym of it.

Phishing used to mean attending a concert by the band Phish (a name possibly derived from that of band member Jon Fishman). But more recently it is being used for an Internet scam that tries to bait people into giving out passwords, credit card numbers and other personal data. It apparently springs from phone phreaking, a form of telephone hacking in the 1970s.

Phood is rather new -- or phresh, in hip-hop lexicon. It describes nutritionally enhanced products and is an amalgam of pharmaceutical and food -- as is pharming, for agriculture's brave new world.

And a Web search yields several more ph examples. Faulty reasoning because of male chauvinism? A phallacy.

"There are different inspirations for many of them," said Jesse Sheidlower, who runs the American office of the Oxford English Dictionary. That seems to point to one linguistic explanation: "They are deliberately misspelled in a humorous way."

Comic respellings are a longstanding tradition in American English, given what Sheidlower calls its "very flexible orthography. For any given sound there may be a lot of ways to spell and pronounce it."

Richard Bailey, an English professor and historian at the University of Michigan, wrote in an e-mail exchange: "Perhaps the most enduring of these [comic respellings] is 'oll korrect,' which rapidly turned into the most American of words, 'OK.' It first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, and soon took off like wildfire."

In an often-quoted 1926 article, Louise Pound wrote of "The Kraze for K," the many orthographic manipulations at that period of k for c. She partly attributed it to earlier efforts at spelling reform, which seemed to catch on primarily in advertising and brand names (Kleenex, Tastykake, Kool, etc.).

"All in all," she wrote, "there is no mistaking the kall of 'k' over our kountry, our kurious kontemporary kraving for it, and its konspicuous use in the klever koinages of kommerce."

So is ph the new k?

According to the OED, ph and k have been a tag team since ancient times, substituted for f and c out of confusion over their Greek and Latin forms. In the 15th through 17th centuries, many English words that had been spelled with an initial f were changed to ph (including pharmacy) in part because scribes took the latter spelling to be more learned and thus correct.

But modern respellings have other purposes. Ralph Emerson, an independent linguistics scholar, said they may be used to differentiate the meaning of words -- the ph in phat, for example, signifies one isn't talking about fatness -- or to distinguish a word or name to make it easier to copyright. Think Fotomat -- a faded example of f pulling the old switcheroo.

Bailey said that "comic respellings are usually subversive. At the very least, people who invent them defy the authorities and say, 'I can spell this word however I like.' "

This is famously true in rap and hip-hop (e.g., the groups Pharcyde and Non Phixion). But Webster's also gets little respect from hackers, who converse in Internet-based languages that may combine letters and numbers. For example, a Web site dictionary for L33t ("elite") speak describes as an old standby the substitution of ph for f, as in ph33r ("fear").

In his e-mail, Bailey noted that the Internet is full of reshufflings of ph and f that are meant to be humorous: fizzics for physics and phinancial for financial, for example.

"These are not mistakes," he observed, "but weary joques."

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