Pronouncing Dour and Other OU Words
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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