The Brits, along with the Canadians, have turned out to be our best friends of all, but they surely stuck us with a tough language. Maybe they were sore because it wasn’t always kind to them, either.

For example, when they invented their alphabet, they stuck an R in there for no reason at all.

They’re all right with an R to start out a word, but, after that, they’re tongue-tied. They can say Brit, but Bert throws them for a loop. Did you ever hear a Brit say New York, or order a cheeseburger? Pathetic.

And sometimes, when they do use an R, they put it where it never even belonged. Such as at the end of a word like “media.” They say “medier,” which makes a TV station sound like something from outer space.

But where they really went astray is when they put these four letters together: OUGH. What a mouthful.

Stick a B in front of it, and you have a branch of a tree, which rhymes with what you have to do in front of their king – bow (so long as you don’t confuse it with the bow tie he’s wearing).

But if you stick a D in front of your OUGH, you get a long O (dough): a slang word for money, or else a raw cookie.

If you instead stick a C in front of it, you have the beginning of an AWFul condition – a cough.

If you put a hic before the cough, it will make what we correctly call hiccup. Hiccup with that spelling actually predates hiccough by about 100 years, back to the 1500s. But people thought there must be some physical connection between “cough” and “hiccup,” so they started spelling it hiccough. We apparently can pin that mistake on the Brits, too.

(Ralph Kramden, in one episode of “The Honeymooners,” in which he is practicing an acceptance speech for mistakenly believing he’s Raccoon of the Year, incorrectly but hilariously pronounces it as it looks: “heecough.” People are still howling at that one seven decades later.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary grudgingly permits either spelling, hiccup or hiccough, though it offers no endorsement of Ralph’s heecough.

So, with the first three consonants in the Brits’ alphabet, B, C and D, we’re stuck with ow (bough), awf (cough) and O (dough).

But we’re just getting started. Look what happens when we get to the T.

Put a T in front of ough, and we have what sounds like “tuff.” I remember as a little kid being called “a rough tough cream puff” by an agitator bent on flattening my nose. I decided that there are worse things than being called a rough tough cream puff, among them having a flat nose, so I let it go.

An R right after the T gives us another aw (trough.)

But squeeze an H in between, and you get another long O (though). Follow that H with an R, and it yields an oo (through). A long oo, as in “too,” as opposed to a short one, as in “look.”

And, if you take out the R and put a T on the end of the word, the ough becomes an aw {thought).

It must be a regional thing. The Scots think McLocklin is spelled McLoughlin.

Clearly, the Brits didn’t know what they were doing. and neither did we.

We kicked them out in 1783 and sought to rid them for good in 1814, imposing a thrashing right here in Plattsburgh. Why didn’t we tell them to take their language with them?

We had similar but much easier choices at our disposal, such as Spanish and Italian, which Ponce deLeon and Columbus had brought with them, though Columbus was sailing for the Spaniards.

And what about the French? Samuel de Champlain certainly didn’t ingratiate himself to the natives around here, as we’re now well aware. But maybe, just from a language perspective, we’d be better off slurring our eurs than muddling through those oughs.

And, of course, ough is not the only troublesome combo. Augh is just as bad. An augh can participate in laughter one moment and a slaughter the next. Imagine anybody trying to learn a language like that.

It would all be much simpler if the Brits had made up their minds and settled on one pronunciation earlier: “You and I are throo!” “You think you’re so too!” “Have you had enoo?”

There are plenty of other screwball complications and contradictions in our language, besides oughs. I could go on forever, but enough is enough.


Twitter: @jlotemplio

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