According to the Online Etymology dictionary, “ouch” derives from the German cry of pain, “autsch.” Since the earliest examples of “ouch” have been found in the U.S., it is likely that the German word was transmitted into English via Pennsylvania German version of “autsch,” which was “outch.” In any case, it is not clear where “autsch” came from—it is a relatively rare word in German—and the OED simply suggests it is “probably imitative” of the sounds that occur naturally when we experience pain.
Steven T. Byington, writing in the Dec. 1942 issue of American Speech, recalls that in his childhood, “the interjection of sudden pain was [aʊ], which we assumed to be merely the sound that the human voice spontaneously produces under the stimulus of sudden pain, but it is…coincident with the German ‘au.'”
Is there a consensus among languages as to what is the “natural, spontaneous sound” that emerges when one hurts oneself? In Japanese, the interjection expressing pain is “itai”; in Spanish it is “ay” (“although in Spanish it is oftener lamentation than pain,” according to Byington) and French has the similar “aïe”; meanwhile, the Russian interjection expressing pain is “Ой.” As for the ancient world, Greeks would use “ah” for sharp sudden pain, the Romans would exclaim “au,” “hau,” or “vau,” and in Hebrew the interjection was “oi.”
Many of these exclamations include the phoneme [a], which makes sense phonetically because the mouth is most “open” and least constricted when making this sound—technically speaking, [a] is a low back vowel—so it is the easiest sound to make spontaneously. It is one of the first sounds that babies are able to produce, perhaps explaining why so many languages have words that sound like “mama” ([mamə]) referring to mothers. Babies, of course, also make that sound when they are crying. In time, the cry of pain becomes a distinctive element in language.
Byington theorizes that “ouch,” with its unusual final “ch” ([ʃ]), started as an imitation or ridicule of something in erratic in speech, and what started as a ridicule became the norm. However, since interjections (such as those of pain) don’t refer to ideas but rather express the emotions of the speaker, it is difficult or impossible to locate a precise etymology (Professor Wayne Davis of the Georgetown Philosophy Department terms this type of meaning “nonideational meaning.”)
Lexicographer Michael Quinion offers a final note of caution, saying that “recording such inarticulate noises is fraught with difficulty. They vary so much in sense from use to use, and so much depends on the exact intonation, that merely writing them down is a deeply unsatisfactory process compared with hearing them said.”
That being said, do you know how to say “ow” in any other languages? If so, please let me know in the comments so that I have an abundance of ways to express the pain of studying for midterm exams.
[Originally published 2/24/2009 at the Daily Monthly]