The Grammarphobia Blog

A dour pronunciation

Q: How do you pronounce “dour”? Does it have an OO or an OW sound?

A: These days, “dour” can properly be pronounced either way, to rhyme with “tour” or “tower.” But it wasn’t always so.

At one time, this adjective meaning stern, obstinate, or gloomy had only one pronunciation, the one with the OO sound.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “dour, which is etymologically related to duress and endure, traditionally rhymes with tour.

“The variant pronunciation that rhymes with sour is, however, widely used and must be considered acceptable,” American Heritage adds.

The dictionary says 65 percent of its Usage Panel preferred the traditional pronunciation while 33 percent preferred the variant.

Both pronunciations are now accepted in standard American dictionaries.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American pronunciation guides, gives the two pronunciations for readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

English probably got “dour” from the Latin durus (hard), which may have influenced the traditional pronunciation.

The English word first showed in the 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it appeared a century earlier in Scottish and northern English dialects.

We came across the word recently in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South (1855):

“Thornton’s as dour as a door-nail; an obstinate chap, every inch on him,— th’ oud bulldog!”

Actually, he’s not a bad guy when you get to know him.

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