When I was in college, I had a boyfriend whose impeccable spelling and grammar were swoonworthy. We didn't have a perfect relationship, but we both used reasonable amounts of punctuation in our AOL Instant Messages (it was a different time, kids) and we both agreed that it was never acceptable to spell what with no h. Our language-related skirmishes were few and far between, which is saying something considering I'm so pedantic I find a guy's use of the phrase "for all intensive purposes" to be the verbal equivalent of using his t-shirt as a napkin.
But sometimes my then-boyfriend would say something that would make me inexplicably livid, and that something was: Huh? Hearing or reading the word huh from him would throw me into a state of almost physical torment; I didn't want to overreact by snapping at him in response, but the word provoked a visceral revulsion in me. And then my struggle would end as it was bound to end, with me snapping at him to not use that word. He would insist that huh? only meant what?, and I would rage that he should just say what? then. He knew how much that vile word bothered me! Looking back, years later, the fights I provoked with him over the word huh embarrass me, but I think my deep-seated loathing for it remains.
Why does the word infuriate me so much? To be fair, I will allow that there are instances in which it does not. Used humorously, or as a simple, non-interrogative response to a surprising fact ("Did you know that a group of frogs is referred to as 'an army'?" "Really? Huh."), the word huh is a tolerable component of daily conversation. Not my favorite word, but not rage-inducing either.
However, using huh as a replacement for a real inquiry drives me absolutely nuts. It smacks of a willful detachment from the conversation, a way of saying "I heard you and am reacting, but I don't care enough to bother thinking of a meaningful response." You can tell me that you meant to convey "What do you mean?" until you're blue in the face, but I will never stop hearing that tinge of disdain. For someone who values lively conversation, this bare-minimum brush-off feels like an insult.
Huh? also feels freighted with judgment; it conveys "What do you mean?" but with an extra dash of "What was that nonsense you just emitted from your stupid mouth?" It's embarrassing enough to have to reiterate a confusing or misheard statement, and being treated like a fool for not being totally clear the first time only makes the sting greater. Give me the respect of an "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that" or a "What do you mean by that?", please. Just to salve my potentially wounded pride.
Despite my personal reservations, I know that huh isn't going away. It's been plaguing the English language since at least the early 17th century, when it first appeared in print. Merriam Webster notes that it originated as "imitative of a grunt," which is the level of sophistication I believe the word itself possesses. But huh itself is not a grunt; it's a word with a specific definition: "used to express surprise, disbelief, or confusion, or as an inquiry inviting affirmative reply." If I grunt, it doesn't really mean anything, but if I say huh?, people won't have much trouble deciphering my meaning. No wonder it's stuck around for hundreds of years.
Huh isn't just long-lived; it's ubiquitous. A 2013 study found that huh is a "universal word" found across a variety of languages. All around the world, people are saying a variant of huh? to prompt their conversation partners to reiterate or rephrase something that wasn't effectively communicated the first time. The study authors speculate that the very aspects of the word that annoy me -- minimal effort and little nuance or precision -- are the key elements driving the word's popularity around the globe. Write the authors: "Huh? is an easy to produce, maximally underspecified question word - a tight fit of form and function." Huh fills a niche in our language precisely because it allows people to quickly, unobtrusively nudge their interlocutor to clarify or restate something.
The fact that the word has emerged in so many different languages suggests there's something powerful at work -- the syllable conveys a request for better communication so effectively that we all understand what it means. And I don't believe -- anymore -- that my ex intended to be rude or dismissive to me when he used it; like so many people worldwide, he probably just thought it was the quickest and easiest way to let me know I needed to say it again. Users of huh? usually mean well, and I get that.
Still, these rationalizations are not excuses for blurting out huh? that would placate my etiquette-conscious grandmother, and they don't make me appreciate having the word flung at me either. I know it will never go away and that it's not always malicious, but can't we all agree that it's not particularly polite? Lack of required effort and thought might be appealing for the speaker, but few of us want to hear nothing but huh? in response to our deepest thoughts and feelings. In most circumstances, it's not onerous to phrase your response in the form of a full phrase or sentence: "Excuse me?" "What was that?" "Sorry, can you repeat that?"
So please, I'm begging you, if you didn't catch what I just said or if my wording confused you, keep a lid on the huh?. My blood pressure will thank you.
What about you, dear readers? Do you also hate being asked, "Huh?" Do you think my reaction to this word is unhinged? Let me know in the comments!