|Bowfishing. With a bow. From a bow.|
I know, there's something not quite right about that ditty. Maybe it's the spelling errors, meant to point up the inconsistencies in the way similar sounds are spelled in different words. Maybe it's the broken rhyme, resulting from the different ways similar spellings are pronounced. But it's all to the point -- a point that twists in the wounded wits of everyone who tries to read or write in English.
It's hardly news that the pronunciation of "ough" is a tough thought to think through. I remember seeing an "I Love Lucy" rerun in which Desi vented his frustration with that very thing. But I don't think you even need to deal with silent g's or gee-aitches that stand for effs to realize the full horror of the reality we live in every day.
Take, dear reader, the simple three-letter combination "bow." What word is that? Can you tell if it's the "bow" that rhymes with "row," as in "The girl with the bow sits down to row"? Or is it the "bow" that rhymes with "row," as in "The boy takes a bow after winning the row"? (You almost have to be British to get that one.)
Also, notice that even if you do have the pronunciations straight, you still don't know whether to visualize the girl in the first example as wearing a bit of ribbon tied in a bow, or as carrying an archery weapon. Nor can the boy in the second example be relied on as bending at the waist, perhaps with a gracefully extended leg, when he could conceivably be making off with the front end of a boat.
It's the kind of thing that, whether you're reading aloud or just listening to the words in your mind's ear, makes you go back and read a sentence again. And maybe a third time, just to be sure.
But now and again, even the context doesn't help that much. You need to actually hear someone knowledgeably say certain terms to be sure you've got the right pronunciation, because they don't occur in everyday speech outside of certain lines of work.
A sailor, for example, could tell you that the "bow" in the term "bow wave" is the one that rhymes with "how," "now" and "cow," presumably because it's bow of the vessel that produces the wave as it cuts through water, and not because it's shaped like the bow that the girl in the first example must have set down before picking up the oars.
However, the "bow" in "bow window" rhymes with "low," "crow," and "glow," apparently because that one *is* shaped like the girl's bow, and I'm not talking about the one in her hair as she lounges on the window seat. Perhaps the clue to this is that any bow window on a seafaring vessel would most certainly be at the stern, not the bow.
Now, riddle me this: How are we supposed to guess that the "bow" in the word "bowsprit" rhymes with "grow," "flow" and "show"? I mean, a bowsprit is a spar extending from the bow of a sailing vessel.
Another nautical word incorporating "bow" is "bowline," which Merriam-Webster defines as "1: a rope used to keep the weather edge of a square sail taut forward; 2: a knot used to form a loop that neither slips nor jams." If you assume from the "forward" bit that it's pronounced "bow line," as in "a line to the bow of the ship," you're out in your reckoning, sailor! It's "boh-lən" with a schwa in the second syllable. M-W allows "line" with a long i as a secondary pronunciation, but I gather that's an example of over-pronunciation.
There's apparently room for disagreement about how to pronounce the words "bowdlerize" and "bowdlerization." Merriam-Webster allows the "ow" to be pronounced either as "oh" or "au." Never mind the fact that the word originated with Thomas Bowdler's 1818 expurgated edition of Shakespeare's plays, and that (according to Wikipedia) the guy's name was pronounced with the "au" option.
There's a college in Maine called Bowdoin. If you've never been there, you're probably making up your own unique pronunciation in your head. Does the first syllable have an "oh" or an "au"? That part's easy: it's "oh." But then there's an additional concern: Does the second syllable end in "oyn" or a nasalized "wa," like a French word? Answer: Neither. It's just a schwa with a good, old fashioned n at the end. Boh-dən, the same vowels as in "bowline."
What about that 19th century mathematician who revolutionized celestial navigation and pioneered the noble calling of insurance actuary? Nathaniel Bowditch, right? Well, that guy's "bow" rhymes with "scow," "brow" and "wow." As in, if you haven't kept up with your Bowditch (the navigational guide he published, an updated version of which is still in print and is informally named after him), why, you might just put your bow into a ditch.
Every boy's dream, by the "Dangerous Book for Boys" value for the term "boy," is to possess a bowie knife someday. But how is said boy supposed to pronounce the item when the time comes to boast about it? Well, that depends. Apparently it could go either of two ways: "oh" as in "mow" or "oo" as in "boo." Wait, what? That's a third possible prounciation of the letter combination "bow!" And it's maybe the right one, since it's more likely that the bowie knife was named after Jim Bowie (late of the Alamo) than David Bowie (late of The Man Who Fell to Earth).
"Bow" obviously isn't the only "ow" word with these issues. We've already seen that "row" could go either way, as could "sow" - rhymes with "cow" if it's a female pig, and with "sew" if it means to plant seeds. I'm sure there are other "-ow" words, whether of one syllable or more, that may surprise you as to how they are officially pronounced - such as dhow or trow (both "oh"). But I won't go into them now. Instead, you can look them up either here, a sovereign site for discovering Scrabble words, or some other online dictionary.
Perhaps another time we can laugh about some of the -augh and -ough words that make life in the English-speaking world so rough. There are definitely examples I can name off the top of my head that I wouldn't have known how to pronounce if I hadn't looked them up - for example, lough (lock or loch), sough (sow, as in female pig) and slough (which can be either sluff or slau or sloo). Lord, have mercy on us.