The phrase to drop one’s (or the) aitches, also to drop one’s (or the) h’s, means: not to pronounce the letter h at the beginning of words in which it is pronounced in standard English—this being a feature of some English accents, for example the London one, regarded by some to be a sign of inferior social class or of a lack of education.
This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of Gosford Park (2001), by the U.S. film director Robert Altman (1925-2006)—review by Mary Kenny, published in the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 2nd February 2002:
There was a time when language and pronunciation were an infallible guide to the British class system—the idea forms the plot for the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s well-observed Pygmalion. A girl who wanted to get on in the world would need to be able to say “Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire” without dropping the aitches.
The Scottish letter-writer Jane Baillie Carlyle (née Welsh – 1801-1866) used the synonymous phrase not to sound one’s h’s in a letter to her uncle, John Welsh, dated Monday 13th December 1847—as published in Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883):
I saw Miss Bölte magnetised one evening at Mrs. Buller’s by a distinguished magnetiser, who could not sound his h’s, and who maintained, nevertheless, that mesmerism ‘consisted in moral and intellectual superiority.’
The earliest occurrences of the phrase to drop one’s aitches, also to drop one’s h’s, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From Literal Claims, probably written by the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), published in Household Words. A Weekly Journal. Conducted by Charles Dickens (London, England) of Saturday 1st December 1855:
Letter H, in addressing his Dear Little Vowels,—a, e, i, o, and u,—reminds them that he has long held a very useful and honourable place in the family of letters; that his special office has been to put himself at the head of the said vowels, to the end that people might know how to call them; that, though sometimes he has most honourable aspirations to be first and foremost, at other times he is so humble that he only wants to let his next little brother speak, and does not wish any one to take the least notice of him; that he has heard both himself and his little friends talked about so much and called such curious names, that he could bear it no longer; that a little prattling child told his mamma that he had ’urt his ’and, and to his (H’s) great surprise, his mother did not ask him what he meant; that a person who was very well dressed, and looked like a lady, asked a gentleman, who was sitting by her, if he knew whether Lord Mumble had left any Heir behind him; that the gentleman blushed and stopped a little, to think whether the lady meant a son or a hare; that his nerves received a fearful shock from hearing an old gentleman read aloud from his newspaper something about the Russians and the Hottoman Hempire; that an attendant in a music-shop, when a lady had forgotten the name of a song she wanted, suggested that she should ’um the hair; that a democratic statesman told his brother politicians to hagitate, hagitate, hagitate, till they had gained their hobject; that a person while dining, actually told his servant to take down a dish of meat, and to ’eat it and bring it up again, when it was a little ’otter:—that these atrocities are unbearable; that poor letter H cannot stand it any longer; that he, therefore, calls on his little comrades the vowels, to hold a meeting, and see if they and he cannot do something in concert together to stop the mockeries they receive in common, and also to prevent the thousands who mock them from being laughed at themselves, and thought nothing of. Fancy the Queen calling for the ’Igh Steward of her ’Ousehold; or the Prince Albert ’oping that Hadmiral Dundas would not hannihilate the Russian fleet, which he kindly ’asn’t! H’s idea is good and laudable; but the restitution and reparation of injuries is easier in theory than it proves in practice.
It has been remarked that it would be an excellent lesson to see ourselves as others see us; and, this mode of instruction would be considerably extended, if we could hear ourselves as others hear us. “My dear girls,” said a managing matron, who always thought everybody wrong but herself; “what an ’abit you ’ave got of dropping your aitches!” She, good soul, had no idea of being referred to Æsop’s fables, to study the anecdote of the mother-crab and her daughter. She would have been astonished if Mr. Punch, with his politest bow, had presented her with an enormous capital H, on a sheet of card, with the observation, “I beg your pardon, madam, but I fear that you have yourself dropped this!” The worst of dropping letters habitually for too long a period is, that it is not easy to pick them up again. Certain vocal organs, for want of training and exercise, at last become utterly paralysed. Even in the case of life and death, we know that not every Ephraimite could pronounce the Shibboleth. I have heard cockneys gasping to get out an H, and unable to do it.
“’Tis a lovely morning, Tom,” said my cousin Westendish (a native Londoner for three generations past); “I’ll drive you to ’Ighgate in my ’orse and chaise.”
“You shall,” I replied, “when you can say Highgate and horse; but I am not going to sit in public by the side of a fellow who can’t pronounce his alphabet.”
“Nonsense, Tom; I can say ’orse. There; wawse! And there (coughing), o-o-orse and ’Ighgate. What would you ’ave, I should like to know?”
The want of a defensive aspirate exposeth a man to many hard hits.
“My ’orse is very ’ot,” observed a fashionable confectioner, at the conclusion of a hunt wherein he had risked his tongue as well as his neck.
“Very ’ot, is he?” said a bystander; “then you’d better hice him.”
“Pray, sir,” asked a cross-eyed youth, who ran down by the train to look at the sea; “pray, sir, is it ’igh water ’ere?”
“Yes, young gentleman, it is eye-water,” growled Mr. Raspirator, “and I advise you to use some of it to cure your squint.”
In the weekly rotation of our bill of fare at Mr. Mashup’s boarding-school, Friday was the day dedicated to pies and hashes. Though the pie and the hash smelt and tasted exactly the same, still pie was the almost universal favourite. To be sure, you got a slice of crust (a good thick one) to boot; but that was not the reason of the preference. The secret motive lay in the chance you had of recovering the pie bones which you had marked with your knife during the previous week. There was the excitement of a lottery in asking for pie. The attention of the boys on your right and left was riveted on your plate to see whether you had drawn a prize or a blank. Still there were a few cold-blooded and backward boys for whom betting on the resurrection of bones had but feeble charms as a means of sport. One Friday, Mrs. Mashup was carving away. “Which do you choose, Tucketin,—pie or hash?”
“Ash, mem, please,” said Tucketin, unwittingly.
“Ash!—ash! What do you mean by ash? There is no such thing as ash in Mr. Mashup’s establishment. You deserve a good ash-stick on your back; and I shall report the shocking expression immediately after dinner, master Tucketin.”
Now, Mr. Mashup, before turning schoolmaster—all schoolmasters have turned from something else, which they couldn’t get on with elsewhere—had been a country actor, in which glorified state he had smitten Mrs. M.’s heart. Tradition reported him to have appeared on the stage in the shape of a walking gentleman; calumny insinuated that he was only a stick—an upright bit of wood with a round knob at the top. Never mind that: he had been an actor; he read well himself, and he made us read and speak distinctly and accurately. Mrs. M.’s pun told, and so did her denunciation. We had no more ’ash from that day forward; though we had plenty of hashes, and pies, and bones, which bore the tokens of auld lang syne.
John Kemble * astonished Covent Garden pit, by insisting on completing the metre of a Shaksperian line by pronouncing the word aches—pains, as if it had been h’s. The amount of ear-ache caused by the letter h, both by its absence and its uncalled-for intrusion, between that time and this, is incalculable. But, as the toad, ugly and venomous, bears yet a precious jewel in her head, so have I known the misdemeanours of a letter, productive of beneficial and sanitary effects. A lady in a depressed and exhausted state of health, after the doctors had shaken their heads, was recommended as a remedy by her good old nurse, to walk out in the garden “to take the morning hair, and then to come in and heat a hegg for breakfast.” Nurse’s vowels were no more irreproachable than her consonants; and in her broad pronunciation the hegg was converted into a hag. Nevertheless, she insisted on her prescription being followed; and the patient recovered, partly from its material influence, but mainly from the moral stimulus imparted by the fun of first swallowing a wig (taking the hair), and then boiling a witch (or heating a hag).
* Cf. Why ‘ache’ ought to be written ‘ake’.
2-: From Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of Saturday 9th May 1857:
PUNCH’S ESSENCE OF PARLIAMENT.
1857, April 30th, Thursday. The Queen sent a message to the new Commons, desiring them to choose a Speaker. Lord Palmerston having already chosen one for them, was graciously pleased to permit John Evelyn Denison, Esquire, of Ossington in Nottinghamshire, and member for North Notts, to be put into nomination. His Lordship was rather late in his attendance, and Mr. Roebuck, in Mr. Punch’s hearing, somewhat impatiently demanded why business did not proceed, to which Sir James Graham slily responded, that “they were waiting for the Dictator,” a sarcasm which it is supposed Lord Palmerston may manage to survive. The new Speaker was proposed by a namesake and descendant of the person from whom one Mr. O. Cromwell uncivilly prayed that “the Lord would deliver him,” namely, Lord Harry Vane, and was seconded by Mr. Thornely, a retired Liverpool merchant, who drops his aitches. The latter introduced a protest against the long speeches in the House of Commons, and begged that the leading members would begin their orations early in the night. He might as well expect a favourite theatrical buffoon to consent to begin grinning at an hour of the evening when the best part of the audience has not arrived.
3-: From a letter to the Editor, by ‘W. P.’, published in The Friend of India (Serampore, West Bengal, India) of Thursday 6th May 1858:
I have been nearly 10 years a soldier, and I am very sorry to have to confess that promotion from the ranks does not answer as the army is at present constituted, and it would be worse were the “purchase system” introduced. Doubtless there are faults on both sides, the beardless Ensign curls his hairless lip at the hirsute soldier who drops his “h’s” and aspirates his vowels, while the latter has an equal contempt for the former’s want of service, and so on—but the great fact remains, it does’nt answer, “it don’t do.” This difficulty, however, may in the present case be easily got rid off. Leave our “regulars” still to be ruled over by our “born officers,” and give commissions in our “police corps” to the deserving “man of the ranks.”
4-: From The Political Portfolio, by ‘Cosmopolitan’, published in The Weekly Mail (London, England) of Sunday 23rd January 1859:
The second point in Mr. Roebuck’s speech which falls within the scope of this article is that terrible criticism on the letter H. How Mr. Hadfield—who, notwithstanding his name begins with the aspirate, was never once known to pronounce it—relished the comments of his colleague, I am at a loss to determine. This much, however, he knew—that Roebuck was poking fun at his audience, and that a regard for the asper was no more a passport to the good opinion of the House than it is to the good opinion of a company of unaspiring Mormons. With the exception of Gladstone and Disraeli, who are annoyingly correct, there is scarcely a man in the House who doesn’t take liberties with the language. The moment Lord John becomes excited he becomes mispronounceable—calls minister, manaster; and government, goovenment. Lord Palmerston drops an aitch just as often as he uses one too many. Roupell, I see, is going to lecture on John Howard next week at a suburban institute, and if he ever gives the philanthropist the benefit of the first letter of his name, I’ll eat my head, as the old gentleman says in “Oliver Twist.” Whiteside puts an aspirate to every word he utters beginning with a vowel, and Lytton—ay, even the elegant “Pelham”—pronounces half his r’s as w’s, and is guilty occasionally of an h before honourable. Finally, I see the Times, notwithstanding its corroborative leader upon this part of Mr. Roebuck’s speech, talks in its report about the “omission of a h!”
5-: From Orthography and Diction, published in The Leeds Intelligencer (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 24th November 1860:
There is that small but forward part of speech, the Indefinite Article, which the grammar rule says ought to be “a” before a consonant, and “an” before a vowel or a silent h. In obedience to this rule people are expected to gasp over “a harangue,” “a hypocrisy,” “a hyperbole,” because the letter h is not mute in those words, though the remoteness of their accent makes a hiatus which the wretched little article cannot span. On the other hand, we are to say “an ewe lamb,” “an union,” “such an one,” though in precisely parallel cases it would be rightly deemed absurd to say “an yew tree,” “an youth,” “an won wager.” The form of the indefinite article is determined chiefly by the ear: and the grammatical rule has large exceptions for the sake of euphony. It may, indeed, be a question whether people who drop their aitches ought not to use “an” instead of “a” before the mutilated words: at all events it would be as allowable as the British digamma which many people use without having an idea-r- of its impropriety.
6-: From London Correspondence, by ‘T.’, published in The Friend of India (Serampore, West Bengal, India) of Thursday 24th January 1861—the following is about “the want […] of able men in the clerical ranks”:
From all sides, from High Church and Low Church, from Wesleyans and Dissenters, comes up the same complaint. Able men will no longer take orders. The Church gets only the refuse of the Universities. The Dissenting Ministers come year by year from a lower class. The cause, it is said, is the excessive pressure now exercised by public opinion on the clergy. So minute and constant is the supervision that men of independent minds feel that they cannot endure what seems to them a social slavery, and turn aside into more open walks of life. This discipline being strictest among the Evangelicals they suffer most from the absence of recruits, and are compelled to fill up their ranks with a pack of Irish curates, men whose bearing, knowledge, and ideas, are as different from those of the great leaders of the revival, of Simeon, Cecil, Pratt, or Venn, as from those of the Puritans of the sixteenth century. The great Nonconformist bodies complain almost as strongly of their want of new blood. They can find faithful men by the dozen, but they want to win the educated class, and to succeed they must have scholars. All the piety in the world will never reconcile educated Englishmen to a preacher who drops his “hs;” or to a man who like Doctor Cumming is convicted of quoting Greek without understanding it.