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Borough, burro, burrow

A burro is a small donkey. Burrow means (1) a hole or tunnel, or (2) to dig a hole or tunnel. A third homophone is borough (sometimes shortened to boro in the U.S.), which is primarily a noun referring to administrative divisions within some towns, cities, and states.

The words are homophones or nearly homophones in most parts of the English-speaking world, but they are otherwise unrelated. Burro, which is used primarily in the Western U.S., came to English from Spanish, where it is short for borrico, a word for donkey with Latin origins.1 Burrow‘s origins are more mysterious, but it likely has Germanic origins.2 Borough comes from the Middle English burgh, for city, which itself has roots in Old English.3

Examples

Wild horses and burros are descendants of animals released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, U.S. Cavalry, or Native Americans. [KY Post]

They’ve emerged from their burrows, hungry and on the hunt for females to satisfy their insatiable desire to mate as much as possible. [Herald Sun]

The Nets bask in being in a borough that seems to grow more vibrant by the day. [New York Times]

There are currently over 50 thousand horses and burros in holding facilities, while the numbers running free are in question. [Kern Valley Sun]

That practice forces roots into a competitive battle so that they burrow deep into the underlying silt for vital resources. [Globe and Mail]

Sources

1. Burro in the AHD
2. Burrow in the OED
3. Borough in the OED

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Comments

  1. Presumably you mean that the words are homophones in the US. They’re certainly not in other places – indeed in my part of the world – Australia – they’ve all got their own pronunciation.

  2. David Leverton says:

    Exactly what Robert said; it applies here in the UK too. Not there’s much call for use of ‘burro’, but I for one would err towards pronouncing it with its Spanish inflection on the ‘u’, i.e. nearer the short “oo” sound of ‘book’. (Unless you’re from Lancashire, say, where the latter sound tends to elongate, but I digress…) And of course a little roll of the ‘rr’ and a slightly truncated final ‘o’.

    But more to the point, ‘burrow’ is always “BUH-row” (as in, of course, to row a boat), while ‘borough’ is “BUH-ruh” – the two syllables rhyme. In either word, the ‘uh’ sound is invariably very short, there’s none of the slight lengthening you get in the word ‘burr’.

    A special variant can apply to ‘borough’ when it forms the suffix in a place name such as ‘Peterborough’, often being elided in speech to the single-syllable “bruh”, the same as in, say, ‘Middlesbrough’ where the first ‘o’ is actually missing. A quirk is that the football team from the latter place are still colloquially referred to as “Boro” – which is pronounced “BUH-ruh”. A further and somewhat related quirk is that ‘Edinburgh’ is also spoken as if it were spelled ‘-borough’.

  3. Velvet Android says:

    Exactly what Robert said; it applies here in the UK too. Not there’s much call for use of ‘burro’, but I for one would err towards pronouncing it with its Spanish inflection on the ‘u’, i.e. nearer the short “oo” sound of ‘book’. (Unless you’re from Lancashire, say, where the latter sound tends to elongate, but I digress…) And of course a little roll of the ‘rr’ and a slightly truncated final ‘o’.

    But more to the point, ‘burrow’ is always “BUH-row” (as in, of course, to row a boat), while ‘borough’ is “BUH-ruh” – the two syllables rhyme. In either word, the ‘uh’ sound is invariably very short, there’s none of the slight lengthening you get in the word ‘burr’.

    A special variant can apply to ‘borough’ when it forms the suffix in a place name such as ‘Peterborough’, often being elided in speech to the single-syllable “bruh”, the same as in, say, ‘Middlesbrough’ where the first ‘o’ is actually missing. A quirk is that the football team from the latter place are still colloquially referred to as “Boro” – which is pronounced “BUH-ruh”. A further and somewhat related quirk is that ‘Edinburgh’ is also spoken as if it were spelled ‘-borough’.

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