Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. "A gaunt old man with eyes in pain." (after 1770). From the series of so-called "character heads" in the Upper Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

The other day, my brother said, “I think words like ‘ouch’ are left over from the first language.”

And then he dared me to weigh in.  So I did.  What I discovered–as is often the case when I dive into etymology–was both fascinating and surprising.

For example, according to the OED, the earliest examples of “ouch” are all American.  This isn’t to say we Americans were the first to ever hit our thumbs with a hammer, but I never expected this particular derivation of a pain word to have developed in the States!  The OED claims that “ouch” possibly derives from the German “autsch” (used exactly as we usually use it in English) by way of the Pennsylvania Germans, though there’s no direct evidence of this yet.

However, the OED then points us to “ow,” with the earliest written expression dating to 1834. It, like “ouch,” is labeled as “probably imitative,” but the OED editors aren’t willing to guess any further as to its origins other than to point us–yet again–to the older “ou” (same word, but it’s unclear whether English picked it up through Spanish or Scottish) and the positively ancient “O”. (“Oh,” from which our friend Homer derived the contemporary “d’oh”,* is a modern variation of “O”.) “O” is a liturgical expression (you still see it a lot in bible translations and in early hymns), but it means the same thing: an expression of surprise or sudden emotion. We get the word from Old English, which took it from Latin, which in turn brought it over from Greek.

Interestingly, though, there are similar but separately evolved versions of “O” found in Old Irish, Old Welsh, Lithuanian, Latvian, Old Church Slavanic, various old- and middle-German and Scandinavian languages, and so on.

That, combined with the “probably imitative” tag for “ouch” and “ow,” suggests that my brother was, in fact, correct–we don’t have any direct evidence to support this, but some version of “ouch” must have been part of our earliest languages.

That rich and colorful lexicon of other four-letter expressions we use when we hit our thumbs with hammers–well, that’s another story entirely.

* Actually,”d’oh” is a kind of portmanteau, combining the expression of surprise “oh” with the expression of realized stupidity or foolishness “duh.”  Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer, also claims he derived the word from an old Laurel and Hardy running gag, when actor James Finlayson would exclaim “Do-o-o-o!”–though, to return to expressions of pain, “Do-o-o-o!” was itself (according to Castellaneta) a substitute for “Damn!”  This, according to the OED entry for “d’oh,” which was added to the dictionary in 2001.  Just thought I’d mention it in the interest of clarity.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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