Cough, Cough: Here Are 10 Different Ways To Say “-ough”

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"-ough"!

Oh, English. Just when we're starting to feel good about you, pronunciation strikes again.

WATCH: If You Mispronounce These Words, You're Not Alone

For a long part of its history, English spelling wasn't consistent. And over the centuries, the pronunciation of vowels and even consonants have dramatically changed. Add to this the fact that English has borrowed words from all over the world. All of this results in a delightful mess of letter combinations that can be pronounced in many different ways—like we see in the cluster of -ough in English.

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rough

We’ll start with an easy one: rough ... a word with at least 37 different senses.

Rough, as you probably know, variously describes something "coarse, tempestuous, difficult, or approximate." Rough [ruhf] rhymes with huff, with the -ough making the same sound as -uff.

The word is derived from the Old English rūh, which could mean "hairy, coarse, untrimmed." It’s been in common use among English speakers for over 1,000 years, and, roughly speaking, many of its original senses are still used today.

Enough and tough are other common -ough words that rhyme of rough.

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plough

The word plough probably brings to mind those helpful vehicles that keep the roads clear of snow during the winter. It’s also, of course, an ancient and, of course, still vital agricultural tool for turning over soil.

Plough comes from the Old English plōh, a word of Germanic stock meaning, well, "plough." (Farming words can be very old and unchanged.)

Plough [plou] has the same vowel sound as bow-wow, the onomatopoeia for a barking dog. The spelling plow is more common in American English—and might make its pronunciation easier to determine for many.

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through

Like many of our -ough words, through is derived from Old English. It's unique on this list because it's the result of a metathesis: "the transposition of syllables or sounds within a word." This is not uncommon English. Did you know bird was originally brid in Old English?

A flip in the R sound happened to through, too. Through comes from the Old English thurh, a word of Germanic origin with a root sense of "through, across." The -ough part of through [throo] is pronounced with the same vowel sound as the -ue in true.

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though

The word though is a handy conjunction that’s used to introduce a subordinate clause in a sentence, e.g., Though I woke up late, I still got to work on time. Here, though works to contextualize the information in a clause, functioning just like the phrases despite the fact or notwithstanding that. It's often preceded by even.

Though can also be an adverb, meaning "however," e.g., I think it's better, though, to get up on time so I don't have to rush.

The Old English form of though was thēah, which was gradually supplanted by the Old Norse form of the word, thō, by the 1200s.

Though shares a vowel sound with the word toe.

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thorough (British English)

For many American English speakers, thorough is pronounced [thur-oh] with "-ough," sounding like oh and rhyming with our previous word, though.

But, for many British English speakers and other speakers of English around the world, the -ough in thorough ends with an unstressed vowel sound (schwa), -uh, sounding like [thur-uh].

This may seem less strange to US speakers if you consider the word thoroughfare (a kind of road), whose -ough people on both sides of the pond often pronounce with an unstressed, -uh sound: [thur-uh-fair].

Like through, the word thorough is also ultimately derived (as a variant form, thuruh) from Old English thurh. Over a thousand years ago in English, thorough was a preposition and adverb meaning "from end to end, from side to side."

These days we’re more accustomed to thorough in its surviving sense of “extremely attentive to detail,” which emerges by the 1500s. For a long time in English, though, thorough and through weren’t clearly differentiated from one another.

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cough

Anyone who’s ever been sick is well acquainted with our next word: cough.

Recorded in Middle English as coghencough refers to "(the act of) expelling air suddenly and noisily from your lungs." The word is pronounced like [cof] or [kawf] depending on your accent, with the -ough rhyming with the word off.

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hiccough

Both coughs and hiccups involve throat-y spasms, so perhaps it's no surprise that the word cough influenced the spelling of hiccoughs, a variant of hiccup ("an involuntary spasm of the diaphragm.") We can find this spelling by the 1600s.

However you spell the word, the -ough in both hiccough and hiccup are pronounced like up [hik-uhp].

Other spellings of hiccup have historically included hicket, hickop, hickock, and hocket. A hocket, today, refers to a medieval musical technique in which choral singers produce a hiccoughing effect by singing short, rapidly alternating phrases.

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thought

This next -ough variant is constantly on our minds: thought. Defined as "an idea or product of mental activity," the word thought dates back to Old English, when it took the form (ge)thōht. Thought is also the irregular past tense form of think.

In English, people often have second thoughts when they're reconsidering something. (Although rarely do they have third thoughts.) Thought [thawt] is pronounced with the same vowel sound as the word bought, or the slangier wordplay, thot.

hough

It's time for a more obscure entrant for our ough-fest: hough. Hough is now a chiefly Scottish form of hock, in the sense of "the joint in the hind leg of horse, cow, etc., above the fetlock joint, corresponding anatomically to the ankle in humans."

English speakers generally pronounce hough like hock, though Scottish speakers give a different treatment. (More on that in our next slide.)

While hock has become the more common form, hough is actually the older (and more etymologically accurate) form.

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lough (Irish)

The word lough uses the Anglo-Irish spelling of the Irish word loch, which is "a lake or a protected bay." Lough [lokh] can be pronounced using a voiceless velar fricative, (say that three times fast) or a guttural -ch sound in the back of the throat. This is a Scottish pronunciation of hough [hokh], as we noted.

We hope you've enjoyed this -ough examination, and we leave you with a sentence that contains all 10 pronunciations: The wind was rough along the lough as the ploughman fought through snow that all the way up to his horse's houghs, and though he hiccoughed and coughed, he thought only of his work, determined to be thorough.

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