By Anatoly Liberman
It is rather odd that laughter and daughter do not rhyme, while cough and doff do. No one is surprised (after all, have and behave do not rhyme either, while live can rhyme with five or with give; anything is possible in written English), but it is still odd. As always, our spelling reflects the pronunciation of long ago. Once upon a time (that is, in Middle English), to begin at the beginning, words like ought had the diphthong we today hear in note, whereas aught had the diphthong of Audi. The digraph gh had the value of ch in Scots loch. Then the diphthongs merged; hence the homophones ought (ought to) and aught (for aught I know) in present day English. (Vowels constantly merge or split into two, and the ever-active kaleidoscope puzzles both historical linguists and the uninitiated, but there is some logic in this merry-go-round, even though it is often hard to detect.) The most enigmatic change occurred to the consonant designated by gh. It appears to have been torn between the opposing forces: while one made the consonant weak, the other strengthened it. For example, the word enough, whose graphic shape is an accurate transcript of its medieval pronunciation, has come down to us in two forms: one (archaic) is enow (rhyming with now), the other (which everybody uses) is pronounced as enuf. Likewise, Modern English has preserved slough “the skin of a snake,” that is, sluf, and slough “bog,” as in The Slough of Despond, rhyming with enow, cited above. The family name Slough is a homophone of slough “bog.”
Some time in the 15th century, the tug of war between the weak and the strong variant (au ~ ou versus f) began, as evidenced, among others, by the spellings broft “brought” and abought “about” (abought must have been born of utter confusion: so many words with au and ou had gh in the middle that inserting gh where it had never been pronounced looked like a reasonable procedure). But a particularly interesting case is the history of the word daughter. In 17th century private letters, daughter appears in the forms dater, dafter and daufter; daufter, which also turned up in the 18th century, probably reflects a mixed pronunciation, a hybrid of competing variants. The phonetic descriptions going back to that time contain statement like: “Some say f [in daughter]” and “Most of us pronounce dafter.” The same authorities testify that bought, naught, and taught often had f before t. The merger of au and ou was in progress in the 17th and even 18th century: ought could be pronounced like aft in Modern British English or without f but with the same vowel. Sought tended to be a homophone of soft. Henry Fielding (1701-1754) and Smollett (1721-1771), the latter the favorite author of the young Dickens, wrote soft and thoft for sought and thought when they reproduced the speech of people from the countryside. The poets of the Elizabethan epoch rhymed thought and aloft, caught and shaft, manslaughter and after. Shakespeare also rhymed daughter with after (and with slaughter). As late as 1764, the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson attested to the variant druft for drought. The form dafter stayed in many British dialects, for example, in the north and in East Anglia.
The word draught had a similar history. Its etymology is transparent. “Draught” is an act of drawing or that which is drawn. The meaning “design, plan” was preceded by “picture, sketch” (from draw “to describe a line”). The game known as checkers in American English is called draughts in Britain (draught meant “move,” so that draughts can be glossed as “moves,” whereas checkers refers to the “checkered” shape of the board.). The inner form of draught is more obvious than its origin. This noun was borrowed from Scandinavian (probably in the 12th century) and later reinforced by its Middle Dutch synonym dragt. Draft existed at one time as another pronunciation of draught; the form surfaced only in the 18th century. In Standard Modern English, draught is never homophonous with drought, but different spellings have been used to differentiate meanings. While American English banished draught and replaced it by draft in all senses, British English distinguishes between them. Thus, we find a beast of draught (a phrase of the same structure as a beast of burden and a beast of prey) and a draught horse; a draught of water (as well as a draught of pain), and susceptible to draughts. But in both countries, if people are anti-draft, their resentment has nothing to do with a current of air. A banking term is also draft everywhere. When a verb was formed from this noun, naturally, the later form became its basis; hence to draft. A much longer and more precise essay could be written on the subject, but for starters a rough draft will probably suffice.
Corollary: some people are daft, and others are still dafter.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”