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Poohs and tsks and pishes

Jul 19, 2015

Today we  will be discussing pooh and all its forms. Not Winnie the Pooh or the other type of pooh you are thinking. No, no. We are talking all about exclamations of today and yesteryear.

Although many of us do not shout out “pooh” when faced with something shocking or aggravating, University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan does.

“I think, every once in a while I actually do,” says Curzan. “I think I use it to be funny, but if something is a little disappointing or not what I want, I do believe I am capable of saying pooh.”

One pooh is an interjection, but add another pooh and it becomes a verb, like when somebody pooh-poohs a proposal.

These poohs and pooh-poohs are quite old. Pooh dates back to the end of the 16th century along with its partner in dismissal, pish.

The pooh probably comes from poh. Then pooh-pooh comes in by the end of the 17th century and it becomes a verb by the 19th century.

While combing through the Oxford English Dictionary, Curzan found some quotes that use pooh-pooh in a familiar way.

“Everybody pooh-poohs the pantomime,” reads Curzan.  “But everybody goes to see it.”

But then she found this phrase, “He had pooh-poohed her out of his memory.”

What? Thinking about the modern use of pooh-pooh, it makes sense when thought of as “dismiss as silly,” but something about it just doesn’t sound right today.

Today pooh-pooh is usually an informal phrase, but every once in a while someone fancy decides to use it. Like when the New York Times said, “But that was the argument used to pooh-pooh Merrill Lynch’s move in 1989.”

You also might be surprised to know that pooh-pooh is actually not related to a Poobah, which comes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado with its Grand Poobah.

If you can pooh-pooh you can probably tut-tut. One tut comes around in 1529 and becomes the verb tut-tut in the 19th century.

Tsk is actually quite new coming from 1947 and the verb in 1966 as tsk-tsk.

“And it turns out that we don’t tut-tut much anymore,” says Curzan. “We tsk-tsk much more than we tut-tut."

– Cheyna Roth, Michigan Radio Newsroom