The Grammarphobia Blog

When “mow” rhymes with “cow”

Q: I believe Pat misspoke on Iowa Public Radio the other day when she said the noun “mow,” as in “hay mow,” is pronounced the same as the verb. My family on my dad’s side are farmers from Wisconsin, and I’ve always heard it pronounced MAU, rhyming with “cow.” I’ve never heard it pronounced MOE, as in “Mow your yard.”

A: You’re right! Pat mistakenly pronounced the noun, a place for storing hay, as MOE, rather than MAU when she appeared on Talk of Iowa on July 8, 2015. Apologies are in order.

Despite similar spellings, the noun and the verb are pronounced differently. The noun rhymes with “plow” while the verb rhymes with “hoe.” Pat, who comes from Iowa, should have known better.

Why don’t these words sound alike? As it happens, they’ve been different for a very long time, because they come from different sources reaching far back into prehistory.

The “mow” where hay or straw or grain is stored can be traced to an Old English word, muha, dating from before 800, that meant a heap or pile.

The word’s cousins in old Germanic languages meant “crowd,” “flock,” and “common people,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Ultimately, however, the word goes even further back, to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as muk- (heap, pile), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The other “mow,” the one that means to cut down, has its distant beginnings in another Indo-European root, reconstructed as me– (to cut down grass or grain with a scythe).

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this prehistoric me– gave us three strains of English words:

(1) our verb “mow” (as in reap), which started out as mawan in Old English;

(2) “mead” and “meadow,” which come from words for a mown field;

(3) “math,” a nearly defunct agricultural word for a mowing (it survives today in the word “aftermath,” literally “after mowing”).

The archaic “math,” by the way, has nothing to do with numbers. We wrote about the two words spelled “math” in a 2012 post on the blog.

Given that both versions of “mow”—the noun and the verb—are so strongly associated with farming, one would assume their two pronunciations would have merged into one by now.

But it hasn’t happened. All modern dictionaries, as Pat has learned to her embarrassment, give MAU for one and MOE for the other. Live and learn.

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