A Pain in the Aitch

by Jay Nordlinger

For many years, I went back and forth on the issue of “a historian,” “an historian.” There are people who feel very, very strongly about this. Some consider “an historian” a complete abomination. “You wouldn’t say ‘an house,’ huh, huh?”

There came a time when I stopped going back and forth. The truth is, both ways are used, legitimate, and correct. You go by ear. That answer is unsatisfying to many — but it’s right, I believe.

Most of the time, probably, I say “an historian,” and therefore write it. I would never say “an history of Greece.” I would say only “a history of Greece.” But I might well say “an historian of Greece.” Why? I don’t know. My only plea is that common plea, “It’s my language.” And yours, too.

My current series on the homepage is “A Historian’s Jewel.” (It’s about Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book. Part II is up today.) Why did I title the series “A Historian’s . . .” rather than “An Historian’s . . .”? I honestly don’t know. Must have been how I got out of bed that morning. Must have been what accorded with my ear at that moment.

Some readers have written me, “Thanks so much for saying ‘a historian’ — a relief! Glad to have you on my side.” Others have written, “Jay, how could you?”

What I’ll say next week, I’m not sure. I guess I’m still going back and forth, in that sense! (What I have quit is debating the question.) We are in eether/eyether territory. But a guy who says both, depending — he’s a little weird, I grant you.

P.S. Do you know Ira Gershwin’s favorite joke? A lady is auditioning — singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” She’s supposed to sing, “You say eether and I say eyether, / You say neether and I say nyether,” but instead she sings “eether/eether” and “neether/neether.” Then “tomayto/tomayto” and “potayto/potayto.”

The director, sitting in the darkened seats, cuts her off, saying, “Thank you, Mrs. Levine!” (Pronounced “Leveen.”) Hands on hips, before stomping off, she says, huffily, “It’s Levine!” (Pronounced to rhyme with “Devine.”)

Obviously, this joke is better when spoken than when written — but you get the point!

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