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I saw it in a historical info sign in the sentence "Ce métier ô combien difficile et périlleux a disparu progressivement avec le temps." I was astonished to encounter a one-letter word that I'd never seen before. The wiktionary entry gives no definition, and the TLF entry is a bit confusing. What does this word mean? Is it very formal, or very rare?

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    In fact the French wiktionary entry does give a definition. – mlj Sep 28 '16 at 18:09
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The word "ô" is essentially an outdated way of saying "oh !", and rarely used by itself except as part of this set phrase "ô combien + adjective" that means "(this job) oh so (difficult and dangerous)", expressing awe in an emphatic and often ironic fashion.

ps : J'ai trouvé ça drôle, moi aussi, la première fois que je l'ai rencontré.

  • Famous line from Le Cid: Ô rage ! ô désespoir ! ô vieillesse ennemie !. – Destal Sep 28 '16 at 6:17
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    Please note it is not outdated, but literary, and is seemingly not mostly used with combien or any set phrase. See this, this or this. Thanks. – user3177 Sep 28 '16 at 10:34
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The Latin word o that had a wide range of usage (From the Gaffiot: to call, invoke, wish, express surprise, indignation, happiness, pain, …), has produced three French interjections pronounced the same way: oh, ho, and ô. They have some overlapping meanings but also their own specificity.

The ô variant is more literary, that's likely the reason why you hadn't seen it before.

Unlike the others, ô is always followed by another word while oh and ho can be used alone or as part of a short exclamatory sentence. The one word sentence "ô ! " is "forbidden".

Oh ! combien de marins, combien de capitaines… - Victor Hugo

Ô rage ! ô désespoir ! ô vieillesse ennemie ! N'ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infamie ? - Corneille

Oh là la ! (Oh, boy!, Yikes!)

Ho ! Hisse ! (Heave-ho!, one, two, three, hup!)

Ho ! combien de fois il faut te le répéter ? (Hey!)

Ce pont, ô combien nécessaire, … (much needed)

While ô combien might sometimes be used an ironical way, there is absolutely no sign of irony in your quote:

Ce métier ô combien difficile et périlleux a progressivement disparu avec le temps

This occupation, how difficult and perilous was it !, has faded away over time.

Because of the exceptional tides and the shifting sands, the Moulières d'Honfleur were risking their lives collecting the mussels.

  • Ha "it is forbidden." One of the strictest and most important laws of France. – temporary_user_name Sep 28 '16 at 9:50
  • Very true, and perhaps the most important one! – jlliagre Sep 28 '16 at 10:08
  • @jlliagre As far as I understand now, an ironic tone is the key when you use this "ô combien + adjective" expression. As such, if you don't insinuate irony in any way whatsoever and just want to emphasise straightforwardly what you feel (for instance, "how beautiful!" with no sense of irony involved), should you use some other expression? Merci. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Sep 28 '16 at 18:31
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    @LUNA ô combien is often but not always ironical. There is no sign of irony in the OP quote "ô combien difficile et périlleux" and no risk for it to be understood that way unless of course the context tells otherwise. This is definitely not the case after identifying the original source. – jlliagre Sep 28 '16 at 22:41

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