What Does Ghoti Mean in English?

If you’ve never seen or heard the word “ghoti” in English before, you might pronounce it as /ˈɡoʊti/ or something similar to “goatee.” You might even mistake it for an Indian word or a word from an Indian language. However, this word does not appear in any dictionary, and both native English speakers and those who speak it as a second language never use it.

Instead, “ghoti” serves as an example of how irrational or inconsistent English spelling and pronunciation can be. This constructed, five-letter word humorously illustrates the irregularities in how words in English are written and pronounced. We’ll take a closer look at what “ghoti” means in English, the brief history of this word, and why this word has become problematic at times in this Ghoti English article. 

Ghoti in English Means Fish

Illustration of Ghoti in English
Illustration of Ghoti in English (Drawing by Sketchplanations)

No, seriously. The word “ghoti” in English is pronounced in the same way as “fish” (/fɪʃ/) English. The joke goes that the word “fish” could be spelled as “ghoti” using the following sounds:

  • Gh, enunciated as /f/ like in enough, tough, and rough
  • O, pronounced /ɪ/  as in the word women
  • Ti, spoken like /ʃ/ like in words nation, motion, and ration

Because every component of the word “ghoti” is inconsistent in how it represents sounds in English, it is often used as an example of how weird and unusual English spelling is, and how English is not a “phonetic” language unlike Spanish or Korean. 

As an example, “gh” is never pronounced as /f/ at the beginning of words and is only enunciated as such in a bunch of words ending in -ough, -augh, and -aught (with exceptions, of course). The letter “o” is rarely pronounced as /i/ except in women, and “ti” can only be spoken as /ʃ/ when followed by diphthongs such as -ia (e.g. confidential), -ie ((e.g. inertia), -io (e.g. nation), and iu (e.g. Ignatius).

Other Examples of Creative Respellings

Although “ghoti” is the most popular form of creative respelling in English, it’s far from the only one. Educational YouTuber Michael Stevens of VSauce jokingly made creative respellings of a few English words in a YouTube Short called “Forbidden Spellings” to illustrate how bizarre and chaotic the English spelling system is.

For instance, he spelled “church” as “tolot” using the following sounds:

  • T as in /⁠tʃ⁠/ in picture 
  • Olo, pronounced as /ɜɹ/ like the word colonel
  • T again just like the “t” in the word picture

While he also talked about the word “ghoti” in his Short, he also presented different ways of spelling the words “what” and “why,” presented as “oed” and “ho,” respectively. Michael explained that “what” can be spelled as “oed” by using the following sounds:

  • O as in /w/ in one
  • Ed like the /t/ in the word hacked

Finally, he spelled “why” as “ho” based on the sound /waɪ/ in the word choir

But Michael wasn’t the only one who made creative respellings of certain words. Long before VSauce and long before YouTube, Victorians played genteel language games to amuse themselves. Some of these games involved remixing common words, such as potato, which was spelled as ghoughphtheightteeau (which uses “gh” in hiccough, “ough” in though, “phth” in phthisis, “eigh” in neigh, “tte” in gazette, and “eau” in beau). 

The Brief But Interesting History of Ghoti

George Bernard Shaw in 1936
George Bernard Shaw in 1936 (Photo by Picryl)

The word “ghoti” is most famously attributed to the Irish playwright and writer George Bernard Shaw, who was an advocate of English spelling reform. According to American linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer, there’s no evidence that Shaw brought up the word “ghoti” as a comical, creative way to respell the word “fish,” based on studies scholars made using Shaw’s writings.

Instead, the origins of “ghoti” date back to a letter written by publisher Charles Ollier to literary critic Leigh Hunt in December 1855, almost a year before Shaw was even born. In the letter, Ollier told Hunt about how his son, William Ollier, found a new way to spell “fish,” which was the good old “ghoti.” 

Ghoti was attributed to Shaw because of Italian-American linguist Mario Pei, who spread the tale of how Shaw allegedly came up with the spelling in the Los Angeles Times in 1946 and again three years later with his popular book, The Story of Language. 

Zimmer said Pei could have confused Shaw with Daniel Jones, a British phonetician and another prominent advocate for English spelling reform since he served as the model for Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins. Jones also used the word “ghoti” in a speech in 1943.

Why Using Ghoti in English to Spell Fish Can Be Problematic

Ghoti is popular among advocates of spelling reform because it highlights the irrationality of the English spelling system. Literacy professionals also use it to prove that English is not a phonetic language. However, other professionals find the word troublesome and unhelpful, especially when teaching young and adult learners how to read and speak English.

Some professionals fear that using “ghoti” to spell fish creates barriers for learners as it gives them the impression that English spelling is difficult and they can learn it. While English has a complex written code, its spelling system still follows some rules. 

After all, “gh,” while pronounced as “f” at the end of words like rough or tough, is never pronounced as such at the beginning of most words. The letter “o” is never pronounced like “i” except in the word women, while “ti” is never pronounced as “sh” at the end of words, and is only enunciated as such when followed by a, e, o, and u. 

In addition, most people will not pronounce “ghoti” as “fish” and will just pronounce it as “goatee,” which proves, according to Zimmer, that the English spelling system is not entirely a free-for-all.

Conclusion

The word “ghoti” in English may look like a funny and nonsensical word. After all, it is unintelligible, and it is not used as an actual word. But its history and meaning shed light on the idiosyncrasies and complexity of an entire language. It also serves as a powerful reminder of how the English language can be both challenging and fascinating.

Despite being a linguistic joke, “ghoti” has a history that takes back centuries, from being featured in a letter to being tied to one of the biggest figures in modern English literature. It is also a poster child for spelling reform advocates, who campaign for changes in the English spelling system to make it more systematic and regular.

But while the use of “ghoti” among spelling advocates, linguists, and other professionals doesn’t have any bad intention, educators still warn that using it to spell “fish” might only create barriers, when our goal is supposedly to break them down. “Ghoti” may seem a fun word (and a good reminder of how illogical English spelling can be), but it will never be pronounced as “fish,” and it’s certainly not the correct way of spelling “fish.” 

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