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noun [countable] informal

used in electronic communication to refer to a person's husband, wife, or romantic partner

'Dog and my OH have fallen out … causing problems all round … I now have an unhappy OH who is quite frightened over the dog after being bitten last week.'

www.petforums.co.uk 5th August 2012

I have to admit that, belonging firmly to the cohort of digital immigrants, echoes of schoolgirl chemistry mean that I'm likely to interpret the form OH as the chemical symbol for 'hydroxide'. Anyone more familiar with the sublanguage of electronic communication however would know straightaway that in 2013, the expression OH has a far more significant interpretation, being an abbreviation for other half and now popular shorthand for a person's wife, husband or partner.

the social media revolution has caused an explosion of abbreviations to permeate English as the global language of the Internet

Used in blogs, discussion forums and social media platforms, OH is used by individuals to make quick reference to the person they're in a romantic relationship with, and like the phrase on which it's based – other half – conveniently circumvents reference to gender or marital status. It also, if desired, is a neat way to preserve the anonymity of said person. As you'd expect, it's usually used with a possessive as in e.g. my/your/his/her OH, though it also frequently appears with no determiner at all, with people for instance declaring that OH says/does/has … etc.

The abbreviation SO (and S/O), standing for significant other, is also sometimes used as an alternative to OH in the same contexts. If however an individual does want to highlight marital status and gender, then there's the further option of referring to DH and DW, abbreviations for dear/darling husband and dear/darling wife respectively. This format has even extended to other family members, so that DS (dear/darling son) and DD (dear/darling daughter) can be used to refer to any offspring. What's interesting about these latter abbreviations is that their full-form counterparts would be very unlikely to be used in running conversation, unless there was a light-hearted, mildly sarcastic undercurrent. A possible explanation is that use of single letters H, W, D, S etc within written dialogue looks a little odd.

If the reference is solely to a female partner, there's evidence for yet another alternative: SWMBO, an acronym of she who must be obeyed, which has more humorous, deliberately tongue-in-cheek (and, caution, at worst sexist) overtones.

Background – OH

The phrase other half dates as far back as 1600, but was originally a reference to 'the poor' or 'the rich', depending on an individual's social perspective. OH as an abbreviation for other half in the romantic sense first began to appear in the 1990s, though this is not the only interpretation in current usage, OH also now being used in Twitter and other social media speak as shorthand for overheard (often as a way of quoting from someone else without referring to their online identity).

The social media revolution has caused an explosion of abbreviations to permeate English as the global language of the Internet. These abbreviations embrace a whole range of parts of speech and grammatical structures. Examples include simple nouns (e.g. BF = boyfriend, GF = girlfriend), prepositions and connectives (e.g. ab/abt = about, b/c = because), conversational phrases (e.g. BFN = bye for now, BTW = by the way, TY = thank you, NM = never mind, CUL = see you later), fixed expressions (e.g. IOW = in other words, POV = point of view) and even written embodiment of non-linguistic communication (e.g. LOL = laughing out loud, SMH = shaking my head, BG = big grin). If you'd like to see more examples from the enormous and ever-expanding collection of electronic shorthand, check out this link, one of many such compilations.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

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This article was first published on 5th February 2013.

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