Ten different ways to pronounce -ough

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Is that all?


Selected readings


  1. jin defang said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 7:32 am

    Indeed. One of my colleagues pronounces her name Gough as Guff, and I pronounce a slough in the Everglades as "sloo." Go with the flow—or should that be flough?

  2. RF said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 7:53 am

    I only have six of these (American). “Thorough” ends in the same “O” sound as “though” for me, and I wouldn’t spell hock, hiccup, or loch with a gh.

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 8:33 am

    I had much more about a decade ago – and haven't been able to find the list anymore for about as long. I think one depended on URP ɔ: versus ɔ, but the rest was valid in Standard British English as well. Of course, actually mixing accents wouldn't make sense.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Could part of the reason for the inconsistencies in English spelling be the fact that we've absorbed so many words from other languages due to British imperialism, our own adventures in foreign countries, and the high levels of immigration into the US since way back when. Plausible? Not an excuse of course.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:18 am

    I would add to the observations of our esteemed anonymous colleague factors that go back well before British imperialism and American adventurism. Namely, English has borrowed a vast amount of words from countless languages, probably more than any other tongue. I consider this one of the greatest glories and a major source for the stupendous riches of English — but it sure does make spelling hard!

    Of course, that's only one reason for the famous "hot mess" that Michael Cannings talks about in his original tweet. A lot also has to do with internal phonological developments within English, and the ready willingness to adopt an enormous array of topolectal expressions and pronunciations into the "standard" language.

  6. mollymooly said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:18 am

    Is that all?

    I count 30 different ways in this

  7. Phillip Minden said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:39 am

    mollymooly, very nice!

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:47 am

    The classical treatment of these questions is Gerard Nolst Trenité's 1920 poem "The Chaos" — a sample:

    Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
    Finally, which rhymes with enough,
    Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
    Hiccough has the sound of sup
    My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

    Also, see "On beyond ghoti", 3/17/2004.

    That poem was published as an appendix to his textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: Engelse Uitspraakoefeningen (Haarlem: H D Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1920).

  9. Francois Lang said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:50 am

    @Mark: I'd known this masterpiece for a long time, but never known its origin. Language Log is such a wonderful resource — thanks!

  10. KeithB said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:51 am

    Wait, so hiccough is pronounced "hiccup"? American English for the win!

  11. Michael B said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 10:40 am

    'Ought to' also has a rhotic pronunciation /ɔrtə/ in Appalachian English if you're counting variants in different dialects.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    @KeithB: I wonder when the '-cough' became '-up. Apparently, the origin of hiccough is an imitative form of 'cough' which I doubt was ever pronounced 'cup.'

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 11:17 am

    Apparently, the origin of hiccough is an imitative form of 'cough' which I doubt was ever pronounced 'cup.'

    But cf. British Greenough, Am. Greenup.

  14. Scott P. said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 11:21 am

    Indeed. One of my colleagues pronounces her name Gough as Guff, and I pronounce a slough in the Everglades as "sloo."

    'Slough' is taken care of by 'through,' though. :-)

  15. john burke said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 11:24 am

    Not long after the boat sets off
    You reach the edge of Elkhorn Slough;
    Passing beneath the highway now,
    You find yourself in Elkhorn Slough,
    And while two hours are scarce enough
    To get to know the Elkhorn Slough
    I think you'll be, before you're through,
    Enchanted by the Elkhorn Slough.

    (composed after a visit to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elkhorn_Slough)

  16. George said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 12:28 pm

    @john burke


  17. Christine Bothmann said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    I learned the following sentence when studying english in high school (long ago):
    I don't like a bad cold, though a rough cough thoroughly shakes me through.

  18. David Morris said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 2:31 pm

    As well as 'The Chaos', there are at least three other poems based on some of the more common pronunciations, and also an excerpt from I Love Lucy: https://neverpureandrarelysimple.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/ough/

    To me, the spelling is hiccup, and the sooner hiccough disappears, the better.

    To me, lough is Irish and loch is Scottish.

  19. Vance Koven said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 2:31 pm

    And let us not fail to acknowledge Dr. Seuss's opus The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough.

  20. Roscoe said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 4:09 pm

    And J.M.W. Turner's "Ploughing up Turnips, near Slough."

  21. Dara Connolly said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 5:03 pm

    ==To me, lough is Irish and loch is Scottish.==

    You are correct, although the word in Irish is "loch". The spelling "lough" is used in the English version of Irish placenames which have "loch" in Irish.
    Examples: Glendalough = Gleann dá loch (valley of two lakes); Lough Oughter = Loch Uachtair (Upper Lake)

    There is a substantial body of vocabulary used in placename elements which is not properly English nor Irish, but anglicised versions of Irish words: knock, kill, glen, bawn, lis, shan, glas, more, etc.

  22. Chester Draws said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 7:11 pm

    'Slough' is taken care of by 'through,' though.

    ? I appear to be missing something here.

    In my accent (NZ, but BrE parents) slough is pronounced "sluff" when talking about skin, and rhyming with cow when talking about a bog. Neither would appear to have anything to do with 'through'.

  23. Stephen Hart said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 7:38 pm

    Then there's ghoti, which I heard about in the 50s:

    1620s, a more recent variant of hiccup (q.v.) by mistaken association with cough.

    So, maybe some kind of hypercorrection?

  24. Da'ud D'eden said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 8:38 pm

    Hiccough not related in any way to quaffe, I guess.

    I worked a carnival for a summer, when time came to tear down & pack up for the road, the word for it was pronounced "slau" but I thought it was spelled 'slough'; which in Minn. was pronounced sloo/slew.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:09 pm

    Chester Draws: In the American Heritage Dictionary, the first pronunciation of "slough" in a marsh etc. rhymes with "through", and the variant spellings "slew" and "slue" are given. The second pronunciation rhymes with "cow".

  26. Alexander Browne said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:51 pm

    Chester Draws: Wiktionary's pronunciation for slough (2):

    (General Australian, UK): /slaʊ/
    (US): /slaʊ/, /sluː/

  27. Chester Draws said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 12:06 am

    Thanks, I looked up the pronunciation, to make sure I was remembering it properly. I must have got a BrE site.

    If someone pronounced slough as "slou" to me, I doubt I would even recognise the word. I'd assume some odd meaning of slew.

  28. Andrew Taylor said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 5:29 am

    The OED says: "Hiccough was a later spelling [of hiccup], apparently under the erroneous impression that the second syllable was cough, which has not affected the received pronunciation, and ought to be abandoned as a mere error." Its earliest citation of the spelling is from Francis Bacon in 1629.

  29. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 6:02 am

    Backing the OED up is the fact that there is an "up" in the German version, Schluckauf, transparently "swallow-up".

    (Well, that's one of the German versions, but the other I know is completely unrelated…)

    Could part of the reason for the inconsistencies in English spelling be

    Yes, the import of words together with their spellings is a factor. But much more important have been 1) sound changes that weren't followed by spelling updates and 2) printers and hobby etymologists having fun.

    -ough is almost always native, and illustrates the different ways in which the sound [x] disappeared. That is also shown by the Irish placenames that have gh in their English versions: they were first written in English when English had a [x] and consistently spelled it gh, and then the English spelling got frozen.

    The gh in delight, though, is fake – it was introduced by incompetent etymologists.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 6:11 am

    I count 30 different ways in this list.

    …Enroughty is a meatspace troll, right…?!?

  31. KeithB said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 8:32 am

    I pronounce slough "slew", but I blame my Sunday School Teacher who did a flannelgraph version of Pilgrim's Progress: "The Slough of Despond".

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 8:43 am

    Ahhh! The flannelgraph! That brings back fond memories. It was by far the best part of Sunday morning for me. I really looked forward to it.

    Where I'm from (East Canton / Osnaburg, Stark County, northeast Ohio), I think we called it a flannelboard.

    What a marvelous means of animated communication!

    I should have added a note to it in my Painting and Performance!

  33. KeithB said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:00 am

    In VeggieTales "King George and the Ducky" A kids version of the David and Bathsheba story(!), the Nathan analog uses a flannelgraph to tell the King the story of the two men and the sheep.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:06 am


    My heart melts to hear you speak of such things.

  35. Phillip Minden said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:44 am

    Just to verify: those who write "slew" or "sloo/slew" – that is exclusively [sluː], not [sljuː], right?

  36. Bessel Dekker said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 12:37 pm

    It's not so much that "hiccough" is hypercorrection. It's folk etymology, or, if Francis Bacon was not among the "folk", misanalysis. The pronunciationsecond syllable has always been something like /kəp/, the spelling "-cough" is of later origin. (See Stephen Hart's reference.)

    Very slight correction for those who wish to trace Nolst Trenité: the title does not have "Engelse" but "Engelsche". There's spelling reform for you.

  37. Bessel Dekker said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 12:38 pm

    . . . pronunciation OF THE second syllable . . .

  38. Terpomo said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 2:31 pm

    Perhaps it's a bit tangential, but I find the usage of 'Bahasa' in the linked thread irritating; it literally just means 'Language'. If he means to refer to Malay/Indonesian as a single language, the usual term I've heard is 'Malay-Indonesian'.

  39. David Cameron Staples said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

    I wrote a long comment, with sources. Which are links to the Middle English Dictionary and Bostworth-Toller online.

    Which seems to have sent it straight to the spam bin. :-(

    The gist is that OEn -(o)g and -(o)h both became -(o)ȝ in MEn, which was varyingly written -ow and -ogh, and seems to have had /oɣ/ and /ow/ as possible pronunciations, depending on when and where and what context.

    /ow/ seems to have had some drift into /of/, so that explains how
    OEn v. "cohhetan" ("to bluster", probably "to make a loud noise" by extension)
    > MEn v. "coȝan/cowan" "to cough"
    > n. "cowȝe, couwe, cough" : /koɣ/ > /kow/ > /kof/.

    If that "gh" was ever realised as /oɸ/, that might explain how "-up" was thought a reasonable possibility.

  40. David Cameron Staples said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 6:15 pm


    Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
    It isn't fit for humans now.

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 10:38 pm

    Philip Minden:
    Of course not [sljuː] ! English phonology doesn't allow yod after /l/ or /r/ in the same syllable, which is why foreign words containing such clusters are universally mispronounced: we can either drop the yod, drop the liquid, or add a syllable.

    It's strange you speak of _that_ as the origin of the 'slew' pronunciation, as I thought that that Slough was always /slau/; the only difficult part being how to say 'Despond': analogy with 'despondent' and the synonym 'despair' would force di-SPOND, if you hadn't learned it differently. And what is a flannelgraph?

    Summary on 'hiccup': it's imitative, the last syllable influenced by 'up'. It never had any relation to 'cough' and therefore has no bearing whatever on '-ough'.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  42. Phillip Minden said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 6:09 am

    [sljuː] certainly exists in the wild (of standard English), even though [sluː] is probably more common, and increasingly so.

  43. KeithB said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 8:41 am

    I was just saying that that was how Mrs. Christensen pronounced it, and how *I* learned it, I have no idea whether she was correct or not. 8^)


    I suspect that the South Park style was supposed to be a parody of it.

  44. mollymooly said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 11:59 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    Of course not [sljuː] ! English phonology doesn't allow yod after /l/ or /r/ in the same syllable

    British RP still allows yod after /l/ though it is in decline. It is rarer after fricative+/l/ than bare /l/ but far from obsolete. After stop+/l/ it may exist only in Welsh English.

    Do any non-rhotic speakers have /-rj-/ in "erudite"? It would make a quandary of which syllable the /r/ is in.

  45. Terry K. said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 2:12 pm

    For whatever it's worth, for slew, Wiktionary lists /sljuː/ as obsolete (interesting that it includes an "obsolete" pronunciation) and lists /slɪu/ as "Wales, Northern England, some New England and Southern American dialects. Otherwise, it's /sluː/. That pronunciation is not listed for slue (which shows only /sluː/) nor slough.

  46. Haamu said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 6:24 pm

    @Andrew Usher:

    Of course not [sljuː] ! English phonology doesn't allow yod after /l/ or /r/ in the same syllable …

    This would seem to be at odds with the "Daniel sitteth" rule for choral diction.

  47. mollymooly said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 6:33 pm

    Longman Pronouncing Dictionary gives /sljuː~/ as a lesser variant for slew and sleuth, but not for slough [US], slue, or sluice. All have /sluː~/ as the main pronunciation.

  48. Robert Carroll said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 7:42 am

    There's an episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph gets the hiccoughs – which Ed Norton pronounces "hickoffs."

  49. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 28, 2022 @ 9:26 pm

    For Victor Mair’s anonymous friend, this excerpt from a post at Aeon:

    The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press had arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently.

    It’s notable that the adoption of a different and related technology several hundred years earlier – the alphabet, in use from the 600s – didn’t have this disorienting effect on English.


    This article, by Arika Okrent, posits that printing technology retained spellings that would otherwise have regularized English spelling had the timing been different. Sorry I did not post this earlier, but I only came across the article a few days ago. It turns out I also have one of her books and I ordered the one about spelling after reading this brief profile posted with the article:

    Arika Okrentis a linguist and author with a joint PhD in linguistics and cognition and cognitive neuroscience from the University of Chicago. She covers language for Mental Floss, and is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages (2009) and Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme – and Other Oddities of the English Language (2021). She lives in Chicago.

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