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My friend was threatening to sue his doctor about the rough cough he’d caught — from the drought, he said. More likely the draught, I thought, and told him not to be a thorough fool, a trip to court would just plough through his dough. With a snort (or “snaught”?) of angry laughter, he went off (“ough”?) with his daughter to buy a primer of phonetic spelling instead.

I don’t blame him. How did English arrive at the chaos of spelling and pronunciation that I’ve condensed into that paragraph? How do non-native users — or many native ones —cope with it?

And there’s worse. Regional accents of course affect the way -ough and -augh are spoken. While southern England says “lahfter”, the north shortens that into “laffter”; and lengthens the southern “tuff” into “tooff”, the vowel sounding as in push. Americans pronounce borough and thorough like dough. But even in Britain’s ‘received pronunciation’ some such words get different sounds for different meanings.

Two ways

Thus the snake that sloughs its old skin “sluffs” it. (Easy to remember, that: think of the puff adder, a deadly African viper.) But slough, a marshy place, as in the slough of despond, rhymes with bough (in England; Americans may say, indeed spell it, “slew”). So does Slough, an ugly town close to elegant Eton, where I was taught to use English. John Betjeman, an over-rated 20th-century poet (nay, ultimately, Poet Laureate) in 1937 famously wrote: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough”, and in those pre-blitz days few even of its inhabitants protested.

He could as fairly have written “and fall on Reading”, a city near Slough, pronounced “Redding”— as nobody had told the telepest who recently phoned me about an alleged bug in my computer, claiming, in a fiercely Indian accent, to be calling from “Reeding”.

Back with -ough and -augh, some of these words also have two spellings, depending on what is meant: you take a draught of wine, but write a draft law or are drafted into the army. And even a single meaning can sometimes be spelt in two ways.

That’s true of certain senses of draught/draft. Similarly, we write the old phrase naught for your comfort, yet nought for zero, though its meaning (and pronunciation) are just the same. Indeed, the word has yet another spelling, and sound: the proverbial you don’t get owt (anything) for nowt is north-English by origin, but any user now writes owt and nowt and rhymes these with out.

More hiccups

Likewise, some poets used to write thoro’ for through, but pronounced like thorough. Fair enough: a thoroughfare is merely a way through.

How did this chaos arise? The endings are easy to explain. Old English had such words as toh and sloh, probably spoken with a guttural “h”, as in Ireland’s lough today, or its Scottish version, loch. And in some this “h” ending grew into an “f” sound, in others it vanished. Oh, and hiccough? I’ll hiccup.

But how did -ough develop at least seven rival vowel sounds? Maybe from British regional variations. But I’ve never read which sound grew up where, nor why one region’s sound became standard for one word, another’s for another.

Let’s not fonetisize our spelling. But what a pity our ancestors didn’t do it for us. And why not such American spellings as plow, or even the informal thru?

But that’s enuff.