For years, schools have taught that “a P and an H together, make the F sound.” But students are rarely ever told why. English teachers hesitate to touch the torrid, centuries-long power struggle because the full story has never been properly documented. Until now. After months conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, we, the Phonetic Honesty In Spelling History (PHISH, not the band) Society, present to students everywhere an oral history of how P and H came to make the F sound.
Chapter 1: The F-ing Instigation
In 1528, “the F word” was added to the dictionary. This set into motion a revolt among the 25 other letters.
C (consonant): The word itself didn’t bother anyone. Letters only started getting agitated once people began calling it “the F word.” But the tipping point for all of us was when people started actually saying, out loud, “F this” or “F that.” Using a letter as a verb? That’ll start trouble.
L (consonant): It’s a dangerous precedent. U, C and K are doing just as much work but getting no credit.
A (vowel): I don’t know about equal work. U is a vowel, she’s vital. F is making his own sound. But C and K, they’re both making the same sound. Consonants are always pulling this crap!
B (consonant): I tried to talk to him [F] but he wouldn’t listen to anyone. He was a star now.
E (vowel): As the most common letter, I had to do something. Letters see me as a leader and a good leader deals with any unrest. I called everybody except F together to present a plan to take F down a peg.
Chapter 2: The Meeting
E: Immediately it was clear, nobody liked F. His popularity was out of control. So I proposed, “What if we found a way to make the F sound without F?”
K (consonant): Immediately, everyone glares at C because sound theft is his whole steez. When he’s not stealing my ‘cuh’ sound he’s stealing S’s ‘sss’ sound. Gimmick infringement drives everyone nuts but C has been at it so long there is nothing we can do at this point.
E: I didn’t mean to blow up C’s spot so I said, “I think this is going to take at least two of us.”
H (consonant): I volunteered. I work well with a partner. T and I work together a lot, like in together, that’s us. G and I’d tried this same thing before – cough, tough. We had a little success but we made mistakes. Like, we had ‘trough’ but we also had ‘through.’ If you pick a sound you’ve got to commit.
E: H was my first choice. He’s the perfect role player. Jordan never won without Pippen and H is the perfect Pippen. Now we just needed Jordan.
Y (undecided): I tried to volunteer but E didn’t see me.
E: I saw Y. Are you a vowel or a consonant? Get your own house in order before you start taking on new projects.
K: I thought P would be perfect but I didn’t know if he would be willing. He’s had a rough history. Psychology, pneumonia, pterodactyl? Give him the spotlight and he just goes silent.
E: I said something about this being a ‘coup.’ That word, ‘coup,’ made P wince. It’s a four letter word and he’s silent. He’s one of the only letters that really understood the danger “F this” presented. It took coaxing, but he was our guy.
*P declined to be interviewed for this piece.
Chapter 3: The Partnership
H: P and I’d never worked together before but we immediately hit it off. E had a great plan: go after smart words.
E: Intellectuals will always use more letters when given the chance. Would you rather have a PhD or an FD? So, if you get smart people using P-H words, you start a trickle down where dumb people start using them in order to sound smart.
Q (consonant, barely): In one week, they had philosophy, phenomenon, phallus, and photosynthesis. I looked at my partner U and was like “they’ve almost got more words than us and they’ve only been together a week.” It was impressive.
P and H continued to gain ground in the academic world but F maintained his stronghold in the coveted 18-35 market.
F (consonant): I know my strengths. Farts, Florida, Flava Flav – that’s where I live. Harvard nerds? Me that!
E: I bet when you talked to F he didn’t even say “F that,” he just said “me that” or something, didn’t he?
H: We had some success but we weren’t making progress in the younger markets like we’d hoped. Then S pitched us a wild idea: acronyms!
S (consonant): Trickle down is a fantasy, it doesn’t work. But I’d had a little success with ‘snafu’ and F was dabbling with ‘fubar.’ Kids love acronyms.
E: P rarely talks in these meetings but he stands up and suggests the most aggressive, ruthless thing I’d ever heard.
H: Pretty Hot And Tempting.
S: Fat is a huge money maker for F, especially stateside. Taking that away would kill him.
H: I was like “P, this is too much. F’s got a lowercase letter to look after. This is going too far.” But P just glares at me and says, “We’re doing this.”
Chapter 4: The Drop
In the summer of 1991 ‘phat’ hit the streets. By 1999, being “p-h phat” was something everyone wanted.
K: I’m checking emails and making the agenda for the quarterly meeting, which was just to discuss pound sign changing his name to ‘hashtag,’ when I saw it. F RSVP’d to the meeting. He never came. He thought he was above mandatory meetings.
C: F shows up and he’s surprisingly conciliatory. He apologizes and we agree to drop “phat.” We’d won. It felt great. But after the meeting we’re all having snacks and F sidles up to me and, in a real low voice says, “Don’t you see what’s going on here?” I was like, “What are you talking about?”
F (consonant): I said, “This whole p-h thing, whose idea was that? How’d you schedule this meeting? How’d you pay for the room? How’d you send out the agenda?”
C: E-vites, ecommerce, email. E had distracted us and made this power grab right in front of our typefaces.
H: E had us so focused on F that none of us realized what he’d been doing.
K: The guy is already a vowel. Not just a vowel, the most used letter in the alphabet – and he just wants more! He’s like a billionaire demanding tax breaks. Immediately the feud with F was over. We needed to deal with E.
Forming a united front, the 25 letters put together a coordinated push in the late 00’s and made it fashionable to leave the ‘e’ out of tech words (i.e. Tumblr, Flickr). These changes weren’t sustainable though (Tindr eventually switched to Tinder) and the battle continues to this day.
The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handy is a great novel that I reread frequently.