Pronouncing Dour and Other OU Words

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A reader asks:

How does one pronounce properly the word “dour”?  Should it rhyme with “sour” or “door” or be pronounced something like the whiskey “Dewar’s” or perhaps “doer”?

Dour is an adjective that came into English from a Scottish word that in turn probably came from the word that gives us durable: durus: “hard.” A dour person presents a stern, harsh, forbidding exterior.

Here are some examples of dour found on the Web and in Wuthering Heights:

Never the dour child in his eyes, Eleanor [Roosevelt] was instead his “own darling little Nell.”

Not only did Kierkegaard inherit his father’s melancholy, his sense of guilt and anxiety, and his pietistic emphasis on the dour aspects of Christian faith, but he also inherited his talents for philosophical argument and creative imagination.

The social worker had remained silent throughout the conference, with a dour expression on his face.

[Heathcliff] managed to continue work till nine o’clock, and then marched dumb and dour to his chamber.

In my early (US) education, I learned to pronounce the vowel sound of dour like the oo in goose: DOOr. This is the only pronunciation given in the OED.

The online pronouncing dictionary Howjsay gives a second pronunciation in which the vowel sound is pronounced like the vowel sound in out: DOWr.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged (online version) shows the phonetic symbols for the OW pronunciation first, but the audio feature gives the OO pronunciation.

According to Charles Elster, (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations), a survey of American sources indicates that the OO pronunciation was the only one in US speech until the 1940s. He speculates that the OW pronunciation developed by false analogy with words like our, hour, flour, sour, scour, and devour.

I hesitate to label DOWr “US pronunciation.” Many US speakers do make dour rhyme with sour, but many others pronounce dour as the English and Scots do.

Regional US pronunciation varies widely (and sometimes wildly) when it comes to words spelled with ou. For example, some speakers pronounce tour to rhyme with tore and tourist to rhyme with forest.

When I was growing up, the most common American pronunciation of route was ROOT. We even had a popular song about getting our kicks on Route 66 that was sung with the ROOT pronunciation. Nowadays, many (again, not all) American speakers make route rhyme with shout, losing the distinction between the noun route (“a line of travel”) and the verb rout (“to put to flight”).

Here are a few more ou words grouped according to pronunciation of the vowel sound. Some readers are sure to disagree with the groupings, but here goes anyway. My authorities are the OED, M-W, and Howjsay:

OW as in how:

OO as in you>:

OR as in for:

O as in toe:

UR as in URN:

schwa (an indeterminate uh sound)

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9 thoughts on “Pronouncing Dour and Other OU Words”

  1. I blinked and swallowed hard when I heard someone pronounce of the network device “router” as if it were composed of tree roots. Even now this pronunciation summons a mental image of the Roto-Rooter guy cleaning drains.

    I also have to confess that I didn’t hear the “doer” version of “dour” until I was well over 30 years old.

  2. The pour/poor merger is pretty strong in SAE and has been for a long time. This may be true partly, (I think it’s Elster who talks about this) because the vowel sound in unmerged pour (ʊɹ~ɔɹ~oɹ in IPA) has always been weakly demonstrated in American English. We also hear it regularly in the merging of tore and tour.

    At the same time, -our endings rhyming sour, hour, our, etc. have always been common. This would then suggest that the either the pronunciation souding like door (pour/poor merger) or the one sounding like dow-er would be the 2 contenders. Dewer’s would be “thrown out” simply because of its thin connection to SAE (but there are doers and there are talkers…a related subject but not really that kind of talkers.) Of those 2, I have always heard it rhyming with power, shower, hour (Choice #2). I don’t think I’ve ever heard “door” and “Dewer” just doesn’t sound like American English.

  3. Hmm. I am not entirely sure that I ever heard “dour” pronounced; it’s just not a common word. I’ve seen it in books, of course, and always assumed it was pronounced to rhyme with sour. I probably never checked a dictionary because I knew the definition.
    The pronunciation of “route” as “root” was laid down as law by my mother, and we never were allowed to pronounce it to rhyme with “out.” I was told it came from French and it had to be pronounced as the French do. This rule applied to other foreign-derived words as well. When we played Mille Bornes (does anybody remember that game? I still have mine!), the cards had English and French on them; the “roll” card had “roulez” on it, and we knew to pronounce it roo-lay.
    I am not sure what to make of the router thing…I guess by rights it should rhyme with rooter, but…I am going to keep pronouncing it to rhyme with outer. Sorry!
    For the record and FWIW, I agree with your word grouping, but what does my little opinion mean anyway! Roulez!

  4. The North American Oxford Dict. (the OED for the US) has both:

    dour |do͝or, dou(ə)r| … so you can see: cower |ˈkou(-ə)r|

    I should also point out that the American spellings are molder and molt, so the ‘ou’ doesn’t come into play for Americans with these words.

  5. Bluebird – Never heard of Mille Bornes. When we were kids, the card game we played (besides “Go Fish”) was “Scopa,” pronounced “Scoopa!” with a southern accent………..southern Italian, that is!

  6. “I was told it came from French and it had to be pronounced as the French do.”

    How does that work? Did you have to say the 4th was Andepondonce Day? Did you have to call it oranzhe juice when you drank it as a bayvayrazhe? Sit at the tab-luh? I’m just saying that seems to be a rule that would be difficult to apply in non-arbitrary fashion. Did she say Paree? I know some actually do. There is a tereebluh number of words from French. And they don’t return the favor, eating their omburgers and sondooeeshes on ooeekends and all.

  7. @venqax/venqqax (assuming you are one and the same but for an additional q): I don’t know where the rule came from…my mother has been dead for 10 years so I can’t rightly ask her except perhaps by seance (pronounced SAY-ahnss). I don’t remember her saying Paree. Then again, we always said Jerusalem even though we spoke perfect Hebrew and could have said Yerushalayim. So I suppose it was somewhat arbitrary but it was her house, so she made the rules. 🙂

  8. @Roberta: Scopa seems similar to Cassino! Very cool! I spent an hour snooping around online reading about the history of playing cards and all the different decks and terminology around the world. Now if someone ever asks how many cards there are in a deck, I will have to say, “It depends!” Thanks!

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