The first time I recall encountering this word – or, rather, its present participle, soughing – was actually when I was in graduate school. The drama department at Tufts University (that’s where I was) was performing Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit, in the translation by Patrick Bowles. (I was playing one of the two blind eunuchs. It was not my moment of greatest glory on the Tufts stage – that was probably when I played Flan in Six Degrees of Separation.) There is a line in it, “Cool wood, and the wind in the boughs, soughing like the sea-surge.”
Which tells you well enough what soughing means, without your having to rough it out or tough it out yourself. What it doesn’t tell you is how you pronounce sough. You may guess, from the assonance evinced by the line as a whole, that it rhymes with bough, and that may be what Bowles had in mind. But Heather, the assistant director (the director was a native of Shanghai and left the English tips to Heather, an American grad student), told the actor to pronounce it like soft minus the t – i.e., soughing was to be “soffing”.
It happens that Heather’s is not one of the two pronunciations given in the OED, the Random House, Merriam-Webster, or the American Heritage Dictionary. All agree that the two possible pronunciations rhyme with how and stuff (or with bough and tough, if you will). The OED allows a third for Scots speakers, [sux] – where [u] is the vowel in loop and [x] is the same voiceless velar fricative you hear in loch (so it’s not a respelling of sucks).
The Scots pronunciation is actually the one least changed over the ages. The source of this word is Old English swogan, but the g is really a yogh and would thus be a velar fricative (though perhaps voiced). But velar fricatives have been lost in most kinds of English for centuries, and they have been replaced by a variety of approximations: [f], [w], [i], [ə], nothing at all. Consider that almost anywhere you see a gh there was originally a velar fricative: cough, rough, laugh; caught, bough, though, through; height, weight… The loss of this phoneme, combined with various caprices of vowel shift, has done much to loosen the connection between English spelling and pronunciation.
This word, for its part, was also in danger of being lost, at least south of Scotland. But it proved useful to the literary muse in the 19th century and so had a bit of a revival, and its persistence in the works of Wordsworth, Scott, Charlotte Brontë, Thoreau, and their ilk has given it a certain lasting presence. It shows up both as verb and as noun: “its branches soughing with the four winds” (Thoreau, The Maine Woods); “That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre). It can also refer to sighing or even to whining.
You may also see another word sough, unrelated, used to refer to a bog, a swamp, a gutter, a sewer, or a slough. Naturally, since it can refer to a watery slough, it’s pronounced to rhyme with the desquamation slough rather than the watery slough. What did you expect?
But, now, you tell me what sound wind in the boughs and the sea-surge make. Go dig through your 1970s LPs for the Environments series released by (fittingly) Atlantic in the 1970s, and play the first side of the first one, titled The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore (did I say 1970s!), 30 minutes of waves (recorded at Brighton Beach but significantly adjusted on an IBM 360) – or pick up any of the many relaxation CDs more recently made inspired by them (go to a spa and get a massage; odds are you’ll get rubbed to the sound of harp, pipes, or piano with waves in the background – here, listen to this, it makes me smell sandalwood already). Or – I know it’s out of fashion, and a trifle uncool, but I can’t help it, I’m a romantic fool – go to your nearest beach to watch the sun go down. (Don’t have a beach? Go find a slough, and lean close to see if you can hear a sough in the sough.) Listen to the waves: what do you hear? Sough, sough, sough… which sough? But then listen to the wind in the trees (that’s Environments 5, side 2, by the way), or perhaps the breeze in the heather, and again you’ll hear sough, sough, sough… but which sough? Is it the same one as the waves? And does either of them sound more like Heather’s version than the dictionary versions?
Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting today’s word.