The Grammarphobia Blog

A lowering sky

Q: How is “lowering” pronounced when used to describe a threatening sky? And is this usage related etymologically to things descending?

A: The “lowering” that we use to describe a threatening sky is not related to the “lowering” that means descending. It’s a different word entirely, with a different origin and a different traditional pronunciation.

The word found in expressions like “lowering clouds” or “a lowering sky” traditionally rhymes with “flowering,” “towering,” and “showering.” It was originally spelled “louring,” with the “our” pronounced as in “hour” or “sour.”

Its source was the verb “lour,” which was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This verb initially meant “to frown, scowl; to look angry or sullen,” the OED says.

The earliest example Oxford cites is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a chronicle of the lives of the saints:

“He … lourede with sori semblaunt: and þeos wordes out he caste.” (“He loured with an angry countenance and these words he cast out.”)

By the late 16th century, people were using “lour” and “louring” in reference to menacing skies as well as to menacing looks. The OED’s earliest examples are from the stage:

“O my starres! Why do you lowre vnkindly on a King?” (from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, written sometime before 1593).

“The cloudes that lowrd vpon our house” (Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1597).

Note that by this time a “w” had crept into the spelling, and the old “lour” became “lower.” But thanks to poets and to early pronouncing dictionaries, we know that its pronunciation stayed the same.

For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed “loured” and “devoured” in The Hous of Fame (circa 1384). Centuries later, John Milton rhymed “hour” and “lowre” in Samson Agonistes (1671).

And in the 19th century, a satirical poet known only by the pseudonym Quiz wrote these lines in The Grand Master (1816): “His tone of insolence and pow’r, / Made all the passengers to low’r.”

Even today, the original pronunciation is the only one recognized by the OED and some standard dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

But some others, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), say this sense of “lower” now has two acceptable pronunciations. It can rhyme with “flower” or with “knower.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that with two words spelled “lower,” the more common one would influence the pronunciation—and even the meaning—of the lesser-known word.

As the OED notes, “The spelling lower (compare flower) renders the word identical in its written form with lower v., to bring or come down, and the two verbs have often been confused.”

In speaking of clouds, Oxford says, the “lower” that means to look threatening “has some affinity in sense” with the “lower” that means to descend, “and it is not always possible to discover which verb was in the mind of a writer.”

In fact, pronunciation may be a moot point here. It’s been our experience that the threatening sense of the word is seldom if ever used in speech. Most of the time we encounter it in writing—and rather elevated writing at that.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English describes “lower” or “lour” as a literary term in British English. Longman gives as examples “lowering clouds” and “The other driver lowered at us as we passed him.”

As for its origins, the verb “lower” (to look threatening) has corresponding forms in old and modern Germanic languages. These words, the OED says, mean to frown, knit the brows, watch stealthily, spy, or lie in wait.

The other “lower”—the verb and adjective referring to height or position—comes from the adjective “low.” This word, the OED says, is descended from early Scandinavian, where it meant short, near to the ground, humble, or muted in voice.

Finally, a little detour to the barnyard.

That last sense of “low,” descriptive of a quiet or muted voice, may lead you to think of the “lowing” of cattle. But that’s another “low” entirely; it has nothing to do with the “low” that’s the opposite of “high.”

The “low” that refers to the sound of cattle (it rhymes with “toe”) was recorded in Old English (hlowan), but is much older. It’s been traced back to proto-Germanic (khlo) and to an even more ancient Indo-European root (kla), according to etymological dictionaries.

As you might suspect, the Old English hlowan and its predecessors were imitative in origin—they mimicked the resonant moo of a cow. As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Indo-European root, kla, was onomatopoeic.

That ancient root was also the origin of noise-making words in Latin and Greek, specifically the verbs that mean something like “call”—clamare and calare in Latin, kalein in Greek.

Ayto says the Indo-European root that gave us the bovine “low” also produced these words: “Latin clarus (which originally meant ‘loud’ and gave English clear and declare), clamare ‘cry out’ (source of English acclaim, claim, exclaim, etc.), and calare ‘proclaim, summon’ (source of English council).”

But getting back to the barnyard, the old Germanic verbs corresponding to “low” meant “to moo, bellow,” the OED says. But nowadays, Oxford says, the English word represents “a more subdued sound than bellow, being roughly equivalent to moo but somewhat more literary.”

So now we know. Ordinary cows “moo,” but literary ones “low.”

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