The Grammarphobia Blog

Russian dressing

Q: My question is about the pronunciation of “Moscow,” the city in Russia. I had always heard and spoken the word as MOS-cow, with the last syllable pronounced like the animal that says moo. Lately, I have heard many people (mostly on the news) pronounce it as MOS-coh, with the last syllable rhyming with “go.” To me, this is a pretentious and annoying pronunciation. Just curious if you have any insight on this. Also, how would one determine the “correct” English pronunciation of a place that is pronounced Mosk-VAH in Russian?

A: Both the “cow” and the “coh” pronunciations are acceptable, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

American Heritage lists the “cow” pronunciation first and Merriam-Webster’s puts the “coh” version first. The first pronunciation in dictionaries is usually the most common, but the differences in popularity may be negligible.

I looked up “Moscow” in a reference book from the 1950s, my unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), and I found both pronunciations there too: the “cow” was first and the “coh” was second. So it would appear that both versions have been standard English for at least a half-century.

How, you ask, do we determine the “correct” English pronunciation of a foreign city? It’s a messy process that’s pretty much a popularity contest. If educated English speakers overwhelmingly prefer one pronunciation, that’s the correct one. If there’s no clear-cut winner, two or more pronunciations are considered correct. When in doubt, go to the dictionary. All the pronunciations listed are considered standard English unless labeled otherwise.

If you’re interested in reading more, I had an item on my blog last September about the spelling and pronunciation of foreign names.

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