Eh?

by Helen Barker

Quite a few people have commented recently on why I present my-self (in print) as E.H. Cocker. And for the most part, when people confront me with this question, I simply say “eh?”

First of all, it just kind of stuck one day. I mistakenly wrote “E.H.” as opposed to “H.E.”, which is in fact the true order of my name. [Helen Elizabeth Cocker]. In this moment of accidental alphabetical re-ordering, I was struck by the sense that was made out of this new arrangement. “E.H.” said so much more.

So, here are a few musings on E.H….

Growing up in Yorkshire, I became accustomed to people dropping the “H” at the beginning of my name (Helen), and starting instead with the next letter in line – E. Frustrated that due to a dialectical impediment I had effectively been re-named (Ellen), I also pondered on the strength of the vowel in comparison to the consonant. “E” was so much more of a sound, than “H”. H was my silent profile.

My Grandad was forever bellowing “eh?” at people he could not hear. I quite like that E.H. might, in many a context, stand for “excuse me” or “what was that?” I often feel, of my own work, that there is something of the not-quite-heard about it. As though, when making it, I am myself forever shouting “eh?”

In the English pronunciation of “eh”, the letter “H” is used to indicate that the speaking of the “E” should be of length. So that, rather than sounding “ee” one sounds “ey”. Of course, if we put the “H” before the “E”, the pronunciation completely shifts. We then get an “ee” (HE) and not an “ey”. By creating initials out of the two words “EH” and “HE” something else occurs; meaning beyond representation. That is -“E.H.” can be read not only as a stand in for a full name, but as a word/sound “eh”. The same can be said of “H.E.”. It is simply a matter of choice and sensibility then, that I might choose to represent myself as “E.H.”, which can double up as “eh?” or “pardon?” rather than “H.E.” which only really doubles up as “he”, or the third-person singular masculine pronoun! Perhaps “he” can also become the beginnings of an awkard comedy laugh….hee hee. Still, I am sticking with my choice.

According to Wikipedia, one theory of the term’s origin is that the “eh” sound is similar to the “ey” sound that a native French speaker will stereotypically say when pronouncing the word “Hey”. I like this too. “Hello Cocker”.

Apparently, in Sweden, “Eh” is most commonly used as a way of filling out a sentence when speaking, usually when the person talking has not yet come up with a way of continuing what he just said. Similar to “uh”, or “erm”. This is a pretty interesting idea – the name as a thought-filler. A space in time when something that is about to be said is being mulled over. Or, the printed name standing in for the person, like a verbalised pause in language, “hmmmm”.

Lady Gaga released her single “Eh, eh (there’s nothing else I can say) in 2009. I may now adopt this as my very own theme song.

Of course, we are forgetting the most important and revealing reason for my name, E.H. Cocker .  All I can say is, Happy Days “Eh!” Thanks to The Fonz, popular culture can reveal to us the use of “eh” as an italian-american pronunciation of “hey.”

So there we have it, a few quick musings on my printed name. None of them, of course, being the sole reason for it. But all of them contributing to the flexible and playful nature of the English language and the way in which I enjoy mis-representing it through my identity. Having said that, the two most prominent figures in the “Cocker” dynasty are Joe and Jarvis, so following in the footpath of tradition perhaps I should just re-name myself Jane. It might cause less confusion, eh?

Addendum – I almost forgot E.H. Gombrich, most popular for his major book “The Story of Art” and other widely read art criticism. E.H. Gombrich also manages to completely bypass women artists throughout his ‘comprehensive’ guide to the history of art. I think it is only fair then, that whilst greatly admiring (and owning) much of his work, I re-allocate the first two initials of his name to the female gender.