By Anatoly Liberman
The terrible word slough
Some time ago, in my discussion of English spelling, I touched on the group ough, this enfant terrible of our orthography; slough figured prominently in it. One slough, the verb meaning “shed the skin,” rhymes with enough. The other is problematic and had a tortuous history. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (the last quarter of the seventeenth century), made the Slough of Despond famous. He was not sure of the word’s written image, and in his book we find They drew near to a very Miry Slough…. The name of the Slow was Despond. It is not for nothing that rough and bough look so much alike. The group ough could develop into a diphthong (many people say dipthong—a habit worth “sloughing”) or yield uff. Someone who has never seen the word clough “ravine” will not know whether is rhymes with bough, cough, or through.
If I am not mistaken, in Standard British English, slough “mire” (and the surname Slough) rhymes with bough, but in American English it rhymes with through. I am not sure because I never hear this word and can rely only on the evidence of dictionaries. The Century Dictionary, published in the United States around the year 1900, says that slough “a hole full of deep mud or mire; a quagmire of considerable depth and comparatively small depth of surface” rhymes with bough, while when it has the sense “a marshy hollow; a reedy pond; also, a long and shallow ravine, or open creek, which becomes partly or wholly dry in summer [Western U.S.],” it is spelled slue, slew, or sloo and rhymes with through. Other dictionaries either state that the variants are interchangeable or give only one pronunciation, namely sloo. Sloo is well-known in British dialects, from where it came to the New World. As usual, it will be interesting to read the comments of our readers from different parts of the English-speaking world. One thing is clear: a snake “sluffs” its skin.
The pronunciation sloo could not be immediately predicted from the noun’s past. In such words, the usual variants are “uff” (rough, tough, and so forth) or “ow” (bough); cough is regular but exceptional. Occasionally both variants coexist, as in enough ~ enow or sough “rushing or murmuring of the sea,” which some people rhyme with enough and others with enow. Sloo goes back to sloh (with a long vowel in Old English). For some reason, final h in this noun could be lost, and, when it was, slo developed like school and other words with long o (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. awe). The only analog of sloo I can think of is through, but prepositions are usually unstressed, so that in through the loss of final h in Middle English causes no surprise.
How old is the now common British pronunciation foiv for five and the like?
In London, this pronunciation is not very old. At the end of the nineteenth century, Skeat noted that in his youth no one heard it. Dickens’s characters like Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp (Sairey Gamp), the ultimate Cockney speaker in Martin Chuzzlewit, do not say noin and foiv, though Oi for I turns up in many Victorian novels. It is often contended that Dickens was not a reliable observer of Cockney speech. This accusation cannot be taken seriously: Dickens’s ear for sounds was splendid, as, among many other things, his reproduction of American speech in the same novel and of the Yorkshire accent in Nicholas Nickleby shows. Incidentally, he himself never quite got rid of some peculiarities of Cockney. Foiv for five is undoubtedly dialectal, but it came to London relatively late, probably around the time of Dickens’s death (1870) and is not an ancient feature of Cockney. Its adoption by educated speakers is amazing, but people do not hear what they say, and most are sure that their pronunciation is the same as that of their grandparents. (In my memory, British oh no has turned almost universally into eu neu.)
Ukraine once more.
The place name Ukraine cannot be a cognate of Latvian Ukris, if Ukris is a native word. Ukraina, related to Russian okraina, has a prefix (u- ~ o). The root is krai– “region,” n is a suffix, and –a the ending of a feminine noun. In Ukris, as I understand, ukr– is the root.
Fighting against who? or whom?
I keep cutting out sentences in which writers try desperately to decide whether they should say who or whom. But this is like speaking a foreign language: one can never be absolutely certain that the chosen variant is correct. A caption:
“J.J., right, with sister S., who she had been visiting in XX.”
Someone writing for the Associated Press and quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (in an English translation):
“The key to toning down the situation in our view is ending military operation against protesters. Then, I am convinced, these people who you call separatists will take reciprocal action.”
And now to the most sacrosanct source of them all, The New York Times:
“The government has offered amnesties before that did not lead to the release of the tens of thousands of people whom human rights advocates say have been detained or imprisoned during the unrest in the country.”
The last sentence is the worst of them all.
To be sure, if the writers had studied a language like German or Russian, or Latin, all of which have cases, they would have understood that there are such things as the nominative, the genitive, the dative, and the accusative. It would have become clear to them that despite the erosion of the who-whom distinction in American English, the educated norm still requires the nominative who and the oblique case whom, except when the Standard has abolished the difference (Who are you referring to?). Or they may have compared he/him with who/whom. But grammar is not fun, as has been repeated many times. So we meet people whom we thought were dead and meet people who we try to avoid.
Folk etymology at large
In my book on word origins, I devoted a few pages to words like frigmajig “a toy; a trifle; anything that moves or works about.” Last week, I ran into a letter to the editor published in 1930. It was about a self-recording barometer with the words click ma doodle on it. According to a story told at Elderline, the inhabitants found washed ashore a body of a man with a watch in his pocket, still going. None of them had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Finally, a wise man residing in the district arrived. He too was ignorant of the object but did not want to confess it and shouted “It’s a Click-ma-doodle! Kill it!” And it was smashed with stones. This is allegedly the origin of the trademark (many seaside towns had or still have barometers with the same words). I am sure that click ma doodle was coined on the model of other dialectal words like frigmajig, but the story (a hundred percent apocryphal?) is not devoid of interest as a record of human ingenuity when it comes to word origins.
Unless I receive many queries and comments before 15 July, read the next “gleanings” on 24 September 2014.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.