Go to any Revolutionary War period living history program or reenactment and you hear it again and again. “Huzzah for Great Washington and the Continental Congress!” “Huzzah for good King George and Parliament!” Huzzah this and Huzzah that all day.
If our forefathers could come back to one of these events, they would be mightily puzzled. “What is this ”huzzah ?” they might say. “When we cheered, it was Huzzay.”
Huzzay? Yes. Not Huzzah.
In the English speaking world from the late sixteenth century to the mid nineteenth century, the dominant cheer was Huzza! (spelled Huzza, not Huzzah or Huzzay). During the period of the American War for Independence Huzza! appears so frequently, and to the exclusion of other cheers, in letters, diaries, newspaper articles, orders and literature as to make it the predominant, if not universal cheer on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is always tricky to attempt to replicate the pronunciation of words as they were pronounced centuries ago. A cheer is a vocalization. Accents, inflections and pronunciations constantly evolve. In the absence of direct evidence from audio recordings, ancient pronunciations can be questioned. And the eighteenth century spelling, “Huzza,” is ambiguous regarding pronunciation. There are at least forty different ways in which the word “Huzza” might be pronounced in the English language. Which of these forty-plus possible pronunciations was in use in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?
In the case of “Huzza!” there is compelling evidence from period dictionaries, poetry and song that the common, indeed virtually universal pronunciation among English speakers was “Huzzay!” to rhyme with words such as “hay,” “day,” “pray,” “say,” “may,” “away,” “delay” and “play.”
The obvious first place to go for pronunciation guidance is dictionaries. Thirty-eight dictionaries published between 1702 and 1994 were consulted during the course of this study. Seventeen of those dictionaries were published between 1702 and 1806 by fourteen different lexicographers. Each of those fourteen eighteenth and early nineteenth century lexicographers included “Huzza” and defined it as a cheer, a shout , a cry of acclamation. All spelled it the same way — “Huzza.” All those who included accent marks indicated that the stress was to be placed on the second syllable.
Seven of those lexicographers also indicated pronunciation, six by pronunciation guides, one by citing a passage from poetry. All gave the pronunciation of “Huzza” as Huzzay. Space limitations make it impractical to reproduce all of the word entries and pronouncing guides here. The following abridged examples illustrate the ways in which eighteenth century lexicographers indicated the proper pronunciation of “Huzza.”
SHERIDAN, Thomas. A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, both with Regard to Sound and Meaning
The 1789 edition of Thomas Sheridan’s dictionary (first published in 1752) contains a “Scheme of the Vowels” with which he indicates the proper pronunciation of words using superscript numbers. Here is his entry for Huzza and his “Scheme of the Vowels.”
Sheridan indicates that the “u” in Huzza is the short version to be pronounced to rhyme with “but,” and that the “a” in Huzza is the long version to be pronounced to rhyme with “hate,” i.e. “Huzzay!”
ALEXANDER, Caleb. The Columbian Dictionary of the English Language
Caleb Alexander’s dictionary, published in Boston in 1800 gives the following definition for Huzza and “Scheme of the Vowels.”
Although Alexander employs a different notation, the indicated pronunciation is the same: the “u” pronounced as in “but,” and “a” as in “bate.” — “Huzzay!” — this time in an American dictionary.
WALKER, John. A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Exposition of the English Language
The 1802 edition of John Walker’s dictionary (first published in 1798) gives the following definition of “Huzza” and pronunciation guide.
The numbers in parentheses following the entries refer to a long series of notes elaborating on the rules of pronunciation. The following are pertinent to this discussion.
Here again the proper pronunciation of Huzza is given as Huzzay.
JOHNSON, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language
Samuel Johnson used literary citations to illustrate both meaning and pronunciation. The following is the entry from the 1755 edition of his famous dictionary.
The Pope citation is from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” which consists of four “epistles” in rhyming couplets of 250 to 350 lines each. The passage quoted by Johnson indicates that Huzzas is to rhyme with outweighs. Subsequent editions of Johnson’s Dictionary published in England and in America confirm that “Huzzay” was still the prescribed pronunciation on both sides of the Atlantic well into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
Although the means differed, all seven eighteenth century lexicographers who indicated the way in which words were to be pronounced specified the same pronunciation of Huzza — “huz-ZAY,” to rhyme with day, say, way, hay, etc.
As a check to determine whether the indicated 18th century pronunciation was the same as modern pronunciation, several modern dictionaries were consulted. A sampling of words currently pronounced with the long A as in “day” and “play,” and the pronunciation guides in those dictionaries confirmed that the indicated eighteenth century pronunciations and current pronunciations are the same.
But dictionary definitions and their pronunciation guides are prescriptive rather than descriptive.
They set forth what men of letters held to be proper usage and pronunciation. Was this the pronunciation that was actually used by common people in the streets and soldiers in the field?
Evidence from Poetry and Song
One of the most popular forms of entertainment in the eighteenth century was the theater. Men and women of all classes from the highest to the lowest patronized the theater. One of the most popular actors and playwrights of the period was David Garrick. In 1761 or 1762 he wrote a short “afterpiece” or interlude entitled “The Farmer’s Return from London.” It is written in rhyming couplets reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss story. Every pair of lines ends with a clear rhyme, including these:
But was’t thou at court, John? What there has thou seen?
I saw ‘em, heaven bless ‘em! You know who I mean.
I heard their healths prayed for agen and agen,
With proviso that one may be sick now and then.
Some looks speak their hearts, as it were with a tongue.
Oh, Dame! I’ll be damned if they e’er do us wrong:
Here’s to ‘em, bless ‘em boath. Do you take the jug.
Would’t do their hearts good, I’d swallow the mug. (Drinks)
(To Dick) Come, pledge me, my boy.
Hold, lad; hast nothing to say?
Here, Daddy, here’s to’em! (Drinks)
Well said, Dick, boy!
Huzza! (emphasis added)
Clearly Garrick intended that “Huzza” should be pronounced “Huzzay,” to rhyme with “say.” Any other pronunciation would have been jarringly out of place and made that single line the only line in the entire piece that did not rhyme. And just as clearly, his audiences, composed of high, middling and lower class patrons expected to hear “Huzza” pronounced “Huzzay.”
An earlier example of the use of “Huzza” is the ballad in couplets “English Courage Display’d, or Brave News from Admiral Vernon,” attributed to “a seaman on board the Buford, the Admiral’s ship, and sent from Jamaica.” It was published as a broadside in England about May of 1741. The pertinent passage reads:
While trumpets they did loudly sound and colours were displaying,
The prizes he with him brought away while sailors were Huzzaing.
Here we have an example of a common seaman rhyming “Huzzaing” with “displaying.”
In a poem titled An Ode to Peace, by an anonymous author styling himself “Crito,” in The General Magazine of Newcastle on Tyne for October, 1748 Huzzas, is rhymed with ways.
While we wait thy warm Caresses
Urge us on in loyal Ways
Not in formal trite Addresses,
Not in Riot and Huzzas.
In the song “American Freedom,” published in 1775, Huzza is rhymed with away and delay.
Hark! ‘tis Freedom that calls, come Patriots awake;
To arms my brave Boys and away;
‘Tis Honour, ‘tis Virtue, ‘tis Liberty calls,
And upbraids the too tedious Delay.
What Pleasure we find in pursuing our foes.
Thro’ Blood and thro’ Carnage we’ll fly;
Then follow, we’ll soon overtake them, Huzza!
About February, 1779, following the acquittal of Admiral Keppel, the song “Keppel Forever” was published. It contains the following lines in which Huzza is rhymed with play.
Bonfires, bells did ring; Keppel was all the ding,
Music did play;
Windows with candles in, for all to honor him:
People aloud did sing, “Keppel! Huzza!”
Another example is in a song that appeared on an engraved song sheet published about 1780 titled “The Drum,” in which Huzza is rhymed with away.
Now over the bottle, our valor we boast,
While the drum, hark the drum, hark the drum rolls every toast.
For America now, Huzza!
The work’s ne’er done, we’ll dance, sing, and play,
And the drum we’ll unbrace, and the drum we’ll unbrace,
Till a war again calls away.
In a song honoring Washington’s Birthday, published in 1784,Huzza is rhymed with day.
Fill the glass to the brink,
Washington’s health we’ll drink,
‘Tis his birth-day.
Glorious deeds he has done,
By him our cause was won,
Long live great Washington,
In the song titled simply “A Song,” published in 1787, Huzza is rhymed with obey and sway.
Thus no longer with stocks and pillories vex’d
Nor with work, jail or sheriff perplex’d, perplex’d,
The mobmen shall rule, and the great men obey,
The world upon wheels shall be all set agog
And blockheads and knaves hail the reign of King Log;
Under his sway,
Shall Tag, Rag, and Bobtail,
Lead up our decorum, Huzza!
In “The Echoing Horn,” published in 1798, we have Huzza rhymed with delay.
The morning is up and the cry of the hounds,
Upbraids out too tedious delay.
What pleasure we feel in pursuing the fox!
O’er hill and o’er valley he flies;
Then follow, we’ll soon overtake him; Huzza!
Later in this same song Huzza is also rhymed with gay and day.
An early nineteenth century ballad celebrating Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Copenhagen rhymes Huzza with fray.
Three cheers of all the fleet
Then from the center, rear, and van,
Every captain, every man,
With lion’s heart began
To the fray.
The 29 December, 1812 victory of the USS Constitution over HMS Java was celebrated in “Glorious Naval Victory” by James Campbell, “A Boatswain’s Mate on Board the Constitution.” It was published as a broadside upon the Constitution’s return to Boston in 1813, and rhymes Huzza with away.
It was at two o’clock the bloody fray begun,
Each hardy tar and son of mars was active at his gun,
Until their fore and mizzen-mast was fairly shot away,
And with redoubled courage, we gave them three Huzzas.
Even as late as 1840, we hear Huzza rhymed with away in England in this tribute to Napier’s victory over the Egyptians.
Hear what has happened lately along the Syrian coast:
The downfall of the Egyptians, of which we made our boast.
So here’s a health to brave Napier, to brave Napier Huzza!
Who conquered the Egyptians and made them run away.
These are just a few of the many examples in rhyming poetry and song of the period in which the accepted pronunciation of Huzza in indicated.
The evidence is compelling that the preferred and virtually universally accepted pronunciation of Huzza among lexicographers, poets and song writers, both the educated and the less educated classes, in America and in England in the mid-to-late eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century was Huzzay.
So where does Huzzah come from?
Credit (or blame, depending on one’s point of view) for changing Huzzay to Huzzah belongs to Noah Webster.
Webster (1758-1843) was one of the most influential men of his period. A tireless writer, teacher and advocate for American values, he was an ardent Anglophobe. He is known principally for his “Blue Backed Speller” (first published in 1783, it was the standard American spelling book until the late nineteenth century), his Dictionaries and for pushing strong copyright laws through Congress.
Webster strongly advocated the use of “American” words, spellings and pronunciations rather than “English” ones. In the case of Huzza, the evolution of this advocacy can be traced through successive editions of his dictionaries.
The earliest version of Webster’s dictionary defines Huzza conventionally as “A shout of joy or triumph,” and indicates the pronunciation to be Huzzay.
In the next edition, first published in 1828 Webster defined Huzza thusly:
HUZ-Z`A, n. A shout of joy. A foreign word used in writing only, and most preposterously, as it is never used in practice. The word used is our native word hoora or hooraw. [See Hoora.]
HUZ-Z`A, v.i. To utter a loud shout of joy or an acclamation in joy or praise.
HUZ-Z`A, v.t. To receive or attend with shouts of joy.
HURRAW exclam. Hoora; Huzza [see Horra.] HURRAH
HOOR`A exclam. [Sw. hurra. The Welsh has swara, play, sport,
HOORAW’ but the Swedish appears to be the English word.]
A shout of joy or exultation. [This is the genuine English word, for which we find in books most absurdly written Huzza, a foreign word never or rarely used.]
This edition is the first that gives the pronunciation of Huzza as Huzzah, with the final “a” to rhyme with “bar,” “father “and “ask.”
As the years progressed, Webster got terser and more direct. In the 1848 edition of his dictionary the entry for Huzza was simply:
H ÛZ-ZÄ‘, n. A shout of joy. See Hurrah.
By 1860 his definition of Huzza was:
HUZ-ZÄ’, n. A shout of joy. The word chiefly is our native word, HURRAH, which see.
Subsequently Huzza disappears from Webster’s dictionaries.
Of course, Webster’s position was not immediately or universally adopted. Other dictionaries, many based on Walker’s definitions and pronunciations continued to include Huzza pronounced Huzzay. One of the latest of these was the Palmetto Dictionary, published in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia. It includes Huzza with Walker’s Huzzay pronunciation, and does not include any of Webster’s variations such as Hurrah, Hooray, Huzzah, etc.
Then two decisive events took place.
- The North won the Civil War rendering things northern, such as Webster’s Dictionary, dominant in American society.Dictionary was reprinted in England and quickly supplanted dictionaries based on Johnson, Walker and other earlier lexicographers.
- Webster’s Dictionary was reprinted in England and quickly supplanted dictionaries based on Johnson, Walker and other earlier lexicographers.
Webster had triumphed. Huzza (along with a number of other words) disappeared from common usage while some 70,000 other words were added to the English lexicon.
Today Huzza is remembered as the dominant cheer of the eighteenth century only by students of history. For everyone else it is an “…archaic variant of Hurrah.”
I am indebted to Ronald W. Poppe, Hardy Menagh and Mark Hilliard, members of The Brigade of the American Revolution, each of whom generously contributed examples from their personal research illustrating the pronunciation and use of Huzza in the eighteenth century.
 The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933). The entry for HUZZA includes 14 quotations from literature dating from 1560 to 1880 in which the word Huzza appears as a cheer.
 Period and modern lexicographers give at least four different ways to pronounce the “U” and at least five different ways to pronounce the letter “A.” Adding to that whether the stress is placed on the first or the second syllable yields over forty possible combinations.
*Alexander, Caleb (1800)
*Ash, John (1775)
*Bailey, Nathan (1755 & 1786)
*Barclay, James (1799)
*Cocker, Edward (1724)
*Dyche, Thomas (1765)
*Entick, John (1783)
*Fenning, Daniel (1775)
* “J. K.” (1702)
*Johnson, Samuel (1755, 1813, 1818)
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th ed. (1994)
*Perry, William (1788, 1800)
*Sheridan, Thomas (1789)
The Oxford English Dictionary (1961)
The Palmetto Dictionary (1864)
Todd’s, Johnson’s and Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary (1858)
*Walker, John (1798, 1802, 1824, 1829)
*Webster, Noah (1806)
Webster, Noah (1807, 1817,1828, 1833, 1848, 1849, 1860, 1867)
Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (1984)
Worcester, Joseph E. (1860)
Wright, Joseph (1905)
Wright, Thomas (1880)
Wyld & Partridge (1867)
Caleb Alexander, The Columbian Dictionary of the English Language, (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1800).
Daniel Fenning, The Royal English Dictionary, or a Treasury of the English Language, (London: L. Hawes, 1775).
Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, (London: J. and P. Knapton; T. and T. Longman; C. Hitch and L. Hawes; A. Millar; and R. and J. Dodsley, 1755). [Reproduction edition by Times Books Limited, (London, 1979.)] The same definition and pronunciation is given in an edition of Johnson’s Dictionary published in Philadelphia by Johnson & Warner in 1813 and in an edition published in London by Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown in 1818.
William Perry, The Royal Standard English Dictionary, (Boston: I. Thomas & E. T. Andrews, 1788). The same definition and pronunciation is also given in an edition of Perry’s Dictionary published by the same publisher in 1800.
Thomas Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, both with Regard to Sound and Meaning, (2d Ed.) (London: C. Dilly, 1789).
John Walker, A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Exposition of the English Language, (3d Ed.) (London: Printed for the Oriental Press by Wilson & Co. for the author, 1802). Walker’s definitions and pronunciation guide are seen in dictionaries published in America and England as late as 1864.
Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, (Hartford: from Sidney’s Press for Hudson & Goodwin, Booksellers, 1806).
 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, (Philadelphia: Johnson & Warner, 1813); and Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, (London: Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1818). Vol. 2. (This edition includes words not found in the Dictionary of Dr. Johnson, and additions or alterations made with respect to etymology, definition or example. Where such alterations have been made, they are indicated with * or †. The entry for Huzza has neither mark, indicating that as late as 1818 “Huzza” was still to be used and pronounced in the same way that it had been in Johnson’s time.
 The Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933) [Reprinted: 1961]; Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984); Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994).
 David Garrick, The Farmer’s Return from London. An Interlude, as it was performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, (London: printed by Dryden Leach for J. and R. Tonson in the Strand, 1762), lines 37 to 49.
 Anon., “English Courage Display’d, or Brave News from Admiral Vernon,” ca. 1741, (attributed to “A seaman on board the Buford, the admiral’s ship, and sent here from Jamaica.”) [In C. H. Firth, ed. Naval Songs and Ballads, (London: Navy Records Society, 1906), 177-178.]
 James Campbell, Glorious Naval Victory Obtained by Commodore Bain Bridge of the United States Frigate Constitution over His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Java, (Boston: Printed and sold by Nathaniel Coverly, JNR, Corner Theater Alley, ca. 1813). [In American Naval Songs and Ballads, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938), 129-131.]
 Only two examples in which the rhyme indicated a pronunciation of “Huzza” other than “Huzzay” were discovered in the research for this article. One is a song entitled “Ye Tories all Rejoice and Sing” [in Jerry Silverman, Songs of Ireland, (Barking: Mel Bay Publications, 1991.)]. Written in 1776, it suggests the “Huzzah” pronunciation by rhyming “Huzza” with “law,” and “saw” in the following passage:
And curse the haughty Congress
Huzza! Huzza! And thrice Huzza!
Return peace, harmony and law!
Restore such times as once we saw
And bid adieu to Congress.
The other is Rogers & Victory. Tit for Tat (Boston: Nathan Coverly, 1808) [Reprinted in Robert W. Nesser, American Naval Songs and Ballads, 82-85], which attempted to put a brave face on the 1807 loss of the USS Chesapeake. The intended rhyme is difficult to interpret. The relevant passage is:
Our cannon roar’d, our men Huzza’d
And fir’d away so handy
Till Bingham struck, he was so scar’d,
At hearing doodle dandy.
In this period many persons spelled words as they spoke them – phonetically. If “scar’d” was intended to be pronounced with the long “A,” the indicated pronunciation of “Huzza’d” would be close to “Huzzay.” If “scar’d” was intended to be pronounced in an English West-Country accent (eg: “Arr, Mateys”) the indicated pronunciation of “Huzza’d” would be something like “Huzzahr’d.” Other pronunciations are also possible.