Word of the week

Word of the week: plough

Earlier this year my daughter and I were driving past a pub called The Plough. I asked if she knew how to pronounce it, and what the word meant. She guessed, quite understandably, that it’s pronounced “pluff”, to rhyme with rough. (In fact it rhymes with “cow” or “now”, as I’m sure you know.) She didn’t know what it meant. That’s understandable too. She is 10 and, like me, has lived in London all her life. She has never seen a plough in action, churning up a field, making it ready to plant things. I’m not sure that I have either, certainly not close up.

As with previous pieces, I’ll transcribe a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle: “a large farming implement with one or more blades fixed in a frame, drawn over soil to turn it over and cut furrows in preparation for the planting of seeds”.

That’s the definition for plough as a noun. I generally use it as a verb, to “advance laboriously or forcefully”. That is how I described it in last month’s piece about trying to read “Stig of the Dump”: my son and I were ploughing through it until I bought a new, more readable copy, and then our progress was much quicker.

The letter pattern “ough” is a real challenge for anyone learning English, adult or child. When used at the end of a word it can be pronounced at least eight different ways, and none of them is the same as the “aw” sound it makes in the words “ought”, “bought” and “thought”.

Over the years I have written out, by hand, examples of “ough” words and their pronunciations, for people learning English, for my children, and just for my own amusement. I am using this Blog to record all sorts of things that are not filed properly anywhere else, to store information that I have jotted down over the years but would be unable to find easily. Sometimes, rather than looking for something that I have scribbled or printed in the past it’s quicker to write it all out again. So, here are those words and pronunciations, many of them taken from the letters of the word “thorough”:

Word Sound made by the letters “ough”
Thorough UH
Through OO
Though OH
Tough UFF
Trough OFF
Thought AW
Plough OW
Lough OCH (or OCK), as in Loch Ness
Hiccough UP

(If I’ve missed any I can always come back and add them to this table.)

After we had driven past that pub called The Plough I went through all of these pronunciations with my daughter. I was still driving so spelt all of them out loud. She didn’t see them written down but was able to get most of them (tough/tuff, cough/coff and so on). She liked “hiccough” but she’s more likely to see it written as “hiccup” these days.

I told her about a place in Ireland called Glendalough. It’s in County Wicklow, famous as the home of Saint Kevin. I spent one of the wettest afternoons of my life there in the summer of 2005. A friend from Yorkshire had visited it and pronounced it “Glendaluff”. It’s pronounced Glenda-loch (that last syllable is like “Loch” in Loch Ness). Irish pronunciations are a whole extra challenge for most English-speakers. Sadly I was never taught Gaelic as a child (and haven’t learnt it as an adult) but am okay with most Irish names. Laois is pronounced “Leash”, Niamh rhymes with “Steve”, Sligo rhymes with “I go” and the surname of the great Irish rugby player Simon Geoghegan rhymes with Reagan (Ray-gn).

Finally, Americans spell the word “plow”, which sort of makes sense, though as a thorough (or picky, or pedantic) sort of person I should point out that all other four-letter words ending in “low” rhyme with “go” rather than “cow”: blow, flow, glow and slow.


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