Just a skosh

Elsewhere today, somebody used the word skosh in a blog comment, although he spelled it scoce. It took me a second to recognize it, at which point it occurred to me that I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the word in print (under any spelling).

The word is fairly common in spoken English: “Move it just a skosh to the left.” “You’re a skosh off on that.” It means “a little bit,” and comes from the Japanese word sukoshi (少し). It apparently comes to us as a result of World War II, along with origami, teriyaki, shiatsu, and karate.

What stands out to me about this word in particular is that, unlike other borrowings from Japanese, we have retained the pronunciation but changed the spelling. Japanese words have a mixed heritage of making it into English unscathed; origami and teriyaki are pronounced fairly closely to the original, while karaoke and harakiri are quite far off. In the last case, a colleague of mine who was teaching English as a Second Language had shown Harold and Maude to her class. She then asked them if they recognized the word “harry-carry”; none of her Japanese students did, even with the context provided in the film.

In Japanese, the high vowels (i and u) are devoiced between voiceless consonants (p, t, k, s, h), or generally between such a consonant and the end of a word. Since we don’t have voiceless vowels in English, we tend to hear nothing at all, so “suk-” will be heard as “sk-.” Hence, skosh from sukoshi, where in main Japanese dialects both the u and the i will be voiceless (but articulated).

The relative rarity of skosh in print, as opposed to in spoken language, possibly explains how it fairly uniquely retained its pronunciation and lost its spelling, as opposed to the other way around. As, for instance, karate classes and karaoke were advertised around the U.S., people attempting to read the signs would change the pronunciation of the final “e” (in Japanese, they rhyme with lay, not with lee). The absence of a consistently visible spelling of sukoshi perhaps protected it from a similar mutation.

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