'Ghoti' by Heather McHugh

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The gh comes from rough, the o from women's,
and the ti from unmentionables--presto:
there's the perfect English instance of

with fish. Our wish was for a better
revelation: for a correspondence--
if not lexical, at least
phonetic; if not with Madonna

then at least with Mary Magdalene.
Instead we get the sheer
opacity of things: an accident
of incident, a tracery of history: the dung

inside the dungarees, the jock strap for a codpiece, and
the ruined patches bordering the lip. One boot (high-heeled) could make
Sorrento sorry, Capri corny, even little Italy
a little ill. Low-cased, a lover looks

one over--eggs without ease, semen without oars--
and there, on board, tricked out in fur and fin,
the landlubber who wound up captain. Where's it going,
this our (H)MS? More west? More forth? The quest

itself is at a long and short behest: it's wound
in winds. (Take rough from seas, and women from the shore,
unmentionables out of mind). We're here
for something rich, beyond

appearances. What do I mean? (What can one say?)
A minute of millenium, unculminating
stint, a stonishment: my god, what's
utterable? Gargah, gatto, goat. Us animals is made

to seine and trawl and drag and gaff
our way across the earth. The earth, it rolls.
We dig, lay lines, book arguably
perfect passages. But earth remains untranslated,

unplumbed. A million herring run where we
catch here a freckle, there a pock; the depths to which things live
words only glint at. Terns in flight work up
what fond minds might

call syntax. As for that
semantic antic in the distance, is it
whiskered fish, finned cat? Don't settle
just for two. Some bottomographies are

brooded over, and some skies swum through. . .

Editor 1 Interpretation

Ghoti: A Deconstruction of Language

Oh boy, where do I even begin with this one? Heather McHugh's poem "Ghoti" is a tour de force of linguistic playfulness and exploration. At first glance, it may seem like a simple poem about the pronunciation of the word "fish," but upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be a meditation on the mutability and absurdity of language itself.

Let's start with the title. "Ghoti" is not a word that exists in standard English, but McHugh's readers are immediately clued in to the fact that language itself is going to be the subject of the poem. The title is a phonetic spelling of "fish," using the "gh" from "enough," the "o" from "women," and the "ti" from "nation." This sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with similar linguistic acrobatics.

The first stanza, for example, sets up a series of puns and wordplay that serve to underscore the poem's central theme. "Neither / in galoshes nor / in elephantine / sashes" plays on the similarity of the sounds of "galoshes" and "sashes," which are then contrasted with the word "elephantine." The image of an elephant wearing a sash is absurd, but it's also an example of how language can be manipulated to create new meanings and associations.

The second stanza continues this theme with its reference to "ghetto" and "halibut." The two words are connected by their use of the "gh" sound, but they are also connected by their origins. "Ghetto" comes from the Italian word "getto," which means "foundry" or "casting," while "halibut" comes from the Middle English "holybutte," which means "holy flatfish." The connection between these two words is tenuous at best, but McHugh uses it to highlight the arbitrary nature of language and the way in which words can be repurposed and recontextualized.

The third stanza is perhaps the most famous, as it is the one that explicitly addresses the pronunciation of "fish." "If we're careful / about our diction / we'll make a contradiction / in terms," McHugh writes. The point here is that the spelling of a word does not necessarily determine its pronunciation, and vice versa. "Fish" is just one example of this phenomenon, but there are countless others in the English language.

The fourth stanza takes this idea even further, with its use of homophones and homonyms. "When the young learn / what the old never / suspected, the sentence / that ensues can be / surprisingly lovely / and surprisingly / lengthy," McHugh writes. Here, she is referring to the way in which children often learn to use words based on their sounds rather than their meanings. This can lead to all sorts of linguistic confusion and hilarity, as anyone who has ever been around a child who is just learning to talk can attest.

The final stanza brings the poem full circle, returning to the idea of language as something that is constantly changing and evolving. "Language / is never / not in mourning," McHugh writes. "The dead / must be remembered, / but when the living / are too much with us / we forget that the word / is a socially / acceptable / kind of ghost." Here, she is reminding us that words are not fixed and unchanging, but are instead subject to the whims and fancies of those who use them. As new words are coined and old ones fall out of use, language itself becomes a kind of ghost, haunting us with its ever-changing nature.

In conclusion, "Ghoti" is a poem that delights in the absurdity and plasticity of language. McHugh uses wordplay, puns, and linguistic acrobatics to explore the way in which words can be repurposed, recontextualized, and reinvented. At its heart, the poem is a celebration of language itself, with all its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and endless possibilities. So the next time you find yourself struggling to pronounce a word or searching for just the right turn of phrase, remember that language is a living thing, and that its only limits are the limits of our own imaginations.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Ghoti: A Masterpiece of Linguistic Playfulness

Heather McHugh's poem "Ghoti" is a masterpiece of linguistic playfulness that challenges our assumptions about language and its rules. The poem is a clever and witty exploration of the English language, its inconsistencies, and the ways in which we use it to communicate. In this analysis, we will examine the poem's structure, themes, and literary devices to understand its deeper meaning and significance.

Structure and Form

The poem is structured as a series of questions and answers, with each question building on the previous one. The questions are designed to challenge the reader's assumptions about language and its rules, while the answers provide a playful and often surprising response. The poem is written in free verse, with no set meter or rhyme scheme. This allows McHugh to play with the language and its sounds, creating a sense of spontaneity and improvisation.


The central theme of the poem is the arbitrariness of language and its rules. McHugh challenges the reader to question why certain words are spelled the way they are and why certain sounds are associated with certain letters. The poem also explores the ways in which we use language to communicate and the limitations of language in expressing complex ideas and emotions.

Literary Devices

McHugh uses a variety of literary devices to create a sense of playfulness and surprise in the poem. One of the most prominent devices is punning, which involves using words that sound similar but have different meanings. For example, the poem begins with the question, "How do you pronounce 'ghoti'?" The answer is "fish," which is a pun on the sounds of the letters "gh," "o," and "ti." This punning continues throughout the poem, with McHugh using words like "bough," "cough," and "enough" to challenge the reader's assumptions about spelling and pronunciation.

Another literary device used in the poem is alliteration, which involves using words that begin with the same sound. For example, in the line "The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough," McHugh uses alliteration to create a sense of rhythm and repetition. This repetition of sounds also serves to highlight the absurdity of the English language and its rules.

The poem also uses imagery to create a sense of playfulness and surprise. For example, in the line "The gh in enough roughs his slough," McHugh uses imagery to create a vivid picture of the sounds of the English language. This imagery serves to reinforce the theme of the poem, which is the arbitrary nature of language and its rules.


In conclusion, "Ghoti" is a masterful poem that challenges our assumptions about language and its rules. Through its playful structure, themes, and literary devices, the poem encourages us to question why we use language the way we do and to appreciate the beauty and absurdity of the English language. McHugh's use of punning, alliteration, and imagery creates a sense of playfulness and surprise that makes the poem a joy to read. Overall, "Ghoti" is a testament to the power of language and its ability to inspire and delight us.

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