Tag Archives: through

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.


There is a Fairmont not too far from where I live (two blocks), and the other day I noticed a sign in front of its unloading area advising motorists that there was no throughfare.

Now, tell me: haven’t you always thought that throughfare seemed more sensible than thoroughfare? I mean, it’s a through road, not a thorough road, right? Have you perhaps once or more questioned yourself as to whether you even remembered correctly which it was?

And, by the way, why are we talking about fares when it’s a road, not something you pay to ride? Shouldn’t throughfare be the money you pay to go all the way through to somewhere?

Well, those are all fare, I mean fair, questions, and they deserve a reasonably thorough answer.

Let’s start with the fact that through and thorough used to be the same word. Old English had a few variations on some words, and the word þurh got a version that had an extra vowel added to make þuruh (that letter þ is a thorn, the way “th” used to be written; for more on how English used to be, see “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion” and “What’s up with English spelling?”). Other words that got this epenthetic vowel include burrow, furrow, borrow, sorrow, and marrow. As for the one-syllable version, it swapped the two middle sounds around and then let go of the velar fricative at the end (though we still write it: gh).

So through and thorough are from the same? Yes: to go through is to go all the way, from side to side or end to end; to be thorough is to do something all the way, from side to side or end to end. In fact, thorough has a solid history of use as a preposition and adverb quite in parallel to through; you could still see it as such in an 1847 poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Thorough a thousand voices Spoke the universal dame.”

But now, in the age of thru, we have no thurro or anything like that. But we still have that old fixed form thoroughfare on our lexical bill of fare.

Ah, yes, fare. Cognate with German fahren – indeed, thoroughfare in German is Durchfahrt, which is thoroughly cognate (cognate through and through). Originally a reference to a road or way or journey; then a passage or conveyance (and there’s the verb, as in How are you faring?); then the price for the passage; then there was the mode of proceeding, and on the basis of that a list of a food to be provided – as in bill of fare.

So there. And we need go no further for now. We can content ourselves with tasting the sounds of this word: it is soft, with its voiceless fricatives like wind siffling and soughing in the heather. As thoroughfare, it requires no pursing of the lips as throughfare would; it has that extra fractional syllable, almost just a lengthening of the /r/ in many cases, that gives it a bit more rhythm and length. Thoroughfare is more like the sound and sway of a night trip on train or bus, whereas throughfare would be more like an arrow or two, or some rapid means of conveyance (bullet train or air), with its one-two swing and whiffle.

Either way, it’s a long word, with (ugh) three orthographic unphonological (silent) letters in the middle and another at the end. Its heart is rough, but it doesn’t give you a rough ride. But let us address that Fairmont question: can you spell it – and say it – throughfare?

Well, I mean, you can, but will people look at it and think “That’s wrong”? Will it in fact be wrong?

The answer is that it has been spelled that way at times in the past. And I would not at all be surprised, especially now that thorough meaning “through” is not used, if in the future it came to be that normally. But in the here and now, I’ll just say it’s not in the dictionary as such. I think that’s thorough and fair.