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The loudest short word in English: hurrah!

The loudest short word in English: hurrah

There was a twelfth-century author called Wace, whom the king commissioned to write a chronicle of the Norman conquest. In it Raoul Tesson shouts: “Tur aie,” apparently, meaning “Thor’s aide.” “Surely this is the origin of our modern hurrah; and if so, perhaps the earliest mention of our English war-cry.” This was the opinion of someone who signed his name with the initials J. F. M. in a letter printed in Notes and Queries on June 25, 1853. Surely…. Contributors to nineteenth-century popular periodicals knew incredibly much: they read medieval chronicles in the original, quoted Homer and Latin authors, remembered psalms in Hebrew, and never forgot what they had learned, but their derivation of words was haphazard.

At that time, etymology in the English-speaking world was still an exercise in guesswork, and few people realized that a complete story of word origins should answer the following questions: 1) When (according to our information) did the word appear in the language? 2) What did it mean at that time? 3) If it is a borrowing, why and when was it taken over? The history of hurrah is full of puzzling moments, but I needn’t discuss them in detail, because in 1940 John A. Walz, a Harvard professor of German, once very well-known for his contributions, brought out a paper (42 pages long) on the history of this exclamation (The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 39, 1940, 33-75). Yet, though his survey is excellent, it seems to contain a flaw in need of our attention.

Hurrah surfaced in English texts at the end of the eighteenth century. It was preceded by huzza, and the origin of huzza has been explained quite convincingly as a sailor’s cheer of salute. The word may be identical with the old hauling-cry heissau ~ hissa, related to hoist (a verb of Dutch origin). The problem is that German has hussa (with voiceless ss), which has nothing to do with sailors: it is a cry of pursuit and exultation. A war cry, reminiscent of the sixteenth century hue and cry, used in the pursuit of a felon (the verb huer is, quite probably, of imitative origin)? Or hunters’ cry like English ataboy? We’ll return to hue and cry later.

“I am a lone, lorn creatur’.”
(“Mr Peggotty, Ham, and Mrs Gummidge” by
Sol Eytinge. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham, via The Victorian Web, public domain.)

Two main questions haunt the student of hurrah. How is hurrah connected (if at all) with its synonym huzza? And how is it connected with Russian ura (a, as in English ah; stress on the second syllable), a cry of triumph, popular in both war and peace. Walz, a distinguished humanities scholar, but not a linguist, argued that in huzza, which predates hurrah, z developed to r “through rhotacism.” This is a baffling statement. The term rhotacism refers to any consonant becoming r. In the history of the Germanic languages, the best-known and the only important rhotacism happened long before the appearance of the first written monuments, when z changed to r.

The traces of this early change are not too hard to observe even today: wasversus were, lose versus (for)lorn (Mrs Gummidge in David Copperfield called herself a lone, lorn creatur’), and so forth. In Latin, the alternation Venus ~ (genitive) Veneris is due to rhotacism. The history of language shows that almost any consonant may become r. For instance, in dialectal British English pronunciation, pottage (which we remember almost only from the Biblical phrase a mess of pottage) was pronounced with very weak t, and the result is the universally known word porridge. One can find many similar examples. But Walz’s scenario is unrealistic: allegedly, hussa, through the weakening of s (rhotacism), gradually turned into hurrah. Without at least some reference to the dialect of the people in whose speech such rhotacism occurred, this reconstruction does not carry conviction. We should probably agree that hussa and hurrah are different words, even if, as time went on, they got into each other’s way.

In the research of hurrah, there was a seeming breakthrough many years ago. Medieval German poetry has come down to us quite well. In that language, known as Middle High German, the particle long a (pronounced as English ah) was often added to verbs and nouns for emphasis. Once, the verb hurren “to hurry” occurred with this enclitic (“hurry, hurry!”), and as early as 1866, Hendrik Kern, an eminent Dutch philologist, traced hurrah to it. This ingenious etymology is, unfortunately, impossible to accept. The medieval form in question turned up in the thirteenth century, while the earliest occurrence of hurra (so) in German poetry goes back to 1773. Where did the word lie dormant for four hundred years?

A mess of pottage next to a dish of porridge. What a mess!
(L: “Esau and the mess of pottage” by Jan Victors via Wikimedia Commons, public domain; R: “St. Nicholas” by Mary Mapes Dodge, via Picryl, public domain)

The most authoritative etymological dictionary of German was written by Friedrich Kluge. After his death, several editors worked on updating his work, and Kluge himself often changed his formulations from edition to edition. Walz traced the history of this entry from 1882 to 1940: reference to the medieval form in it appeared and disappeared. (The same holds for the later editions.) This is a usual scenario, and a similar story can be told about the etymology of many English words in the subsequent editions of Webster’s dictionary, The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and others. Here, Walz’s conclusion sounds persuasive: given the great time interval between the thirteenth and the end of the eighteenth century, we have no right to derive the German word from a similar-sounding medieval form. The coincidence must be fortuitous.

As mentioned above, the other ghost in the history of hurrah that refuses to be laid to rest is Russian ura!, an exclamation of triumph and encouragement. Allegedly, it was borrowed from German, but many amateurs and professional linguists have observed that the same word is common in several Turkic languages, and, considering how often Russian soldiers fought their Turkic neighbors, the Oriental origin of the Russian exclamation seems rather probable. Also, in the process of borrowing from German, Russian would probably not have lost the initial consonant and modified it to a real fricative, like German ch.

From the Russian Civil War about a century ago: URA!
(By Алексей Задонский via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

It may be useful to throw a quick look at a few similar words, hue and cry among them. The etymon of this tautological Anglo-Norman phrase (tautological, because both components mean the same) is hu e cri “outcry and cry.” The initial group gr– (as in grumble, growl, grouch, grouse, and the like) is obviously sound-imitative. H-r is less expressive, but the aforementioned German hurren and English hurry (the English verb emerged only in Shakespeare), the noun hurly-burly; the verb hurl, an early loan from French, though the French verb may be of Germanic origin, and even hurt (its initial meaning was “knock”: compare hurtle) indicate that the group h-r, even if it is not as expressive as gr-, does occasional service in this direction. The weak sound h- goes back to a real fricative (like German ch), and followed by r, outside English, it produces a lot of words related to noise.

Is this then the origin of hurrah? Just a sound-imitative exclamation? Possibly so. And hurry has the same origin? Perhaps. Hardly a triumphant finale. No, not really. Little pitchers have long ears and short words have a complicated etymology. Sorry for producing a whiff instead of a hurricane.

Featured image by Ambreen Hasan on Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Hollick

    In Scots ‘hurl” means a ride, trip in a vehicle.

  2. Robert Nowak


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