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Inspired by comments on Proper use of the word “lousy”?:

The word lousy is traditionally pronounced with a /z/ sound, as though it were louzy.* Contrastingly, the word mousy is always pronounced with an /s/ sound. The difference seems to be pretty consistent and well-established: these are the only pronunciations listed in the OED and Merriam-Webster for each.

But their root words, louse and mouse, are pronounced identically, both with /s/. Indeed, these words are parallel in almost every other way: they form analogous plurals — lice, mice — and have very similar origins.

So how and why did the pronunciations of lousy and mousy diverge? And are there any other analogous words that also form analogous adjectives? (House doesn’t form *housy; and blousy exists, but blouse is not analogous to the other words.)

*: It seems that recently, since the literal meaning “infested with lice” has become rare, it may sometimes get pronounced with /s/ in this sense, as a spelling pronunciation.

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Regarding pronunciation rules in English, and why seemingly close words are pronunced very differently from one another, why is not a good question. How is more likely to be answered, as is when. I don't have any hint of this answer, in this particular case. – F'x Feb 14 '11 at 19:43
@FX_: sometimes why doesn’t have good answers, but sometimes it does — phonological change isn’t deterministic, but nor is it completely random. Certain shifts can predictably tend to happen faster in certain positions, or dialects, or usages… that’s the sort of explanation I’m hoping for with why. – PLL Feb 14 '11 at 20:53
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The answer is historical. In Old English, voiced and voiceless fricatives were phonologically equivalent. (The current English graphemes <v> and <z> did not exist in Old English.) Between voiced segments, voiceless fricatives became voiced--and this is called sibilant softening. Then, in Middle English, these fricatives became phonemic. That's why you see these discrepancies. Words with <s> between voiced segments after the Middle Ages don't fit in this pattern. That's why lousy (from the 14th cy) got /z/ (softened /s/), whereas mousy (from 1853) got /s/.

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The folowing fragments do not scan: "current English graphemes and did not", "Words with between voiced segments". Are there some missing words here? – Mitch Mar 7 '12 at 14:29
Those curly brackets < > for graphemes messed it up. Thank you. – RainDoctor Mar 8 '12 at 3:40
You can use the Unicode angle quotes: ‹ ›, which are U+2039 and U+203A respectively. It’s just tough to ‹type them›. – tchrist Mar 8 '12 at 4:24
Fascinating! Thanks. – Pitarou Mar 8 '12 at 14:22
I'm amazed that "mousy" originated no earlier than 1853! And although this answer is marvelous, I harbor a suspicion that the pronunciation of "lousy" was altered as it developed its other meanings ("rotten" etc.) The "s" pronunciation of lousy still exists, to mean "infested with lice," even though it is rarely used. The variant pronunciation makes these uses into two different words entirely (and effectively), even if the spelling doesn't. – John M. Landsberg Feb 24 '13 at 1:09

The clue may well be in your observation that "lousy" is no longer perceived as being to do with lice, so there's less of a pressure to avoid the sound change and keep the pronunciation similar to the base form.

Another possibility to consider is that the voicing change accompanying the -y has "gone out of fashion" (possible pair to compare: 'rout' > 'rowdy', where there also appears to have been a voicing change). I wonder if people can come up with other pairs, especially that are earlier derivations, for comparison?

When derivation involves a sound change, it does happen elsewhere that a few words for whatever reason "escape" the change, e.g. because trends in where sound changes occur have changed while the use of the derivation hasn't. For example, compare the vowel change in pairs such as 'pl*ea*se'~'pl*ea*sure', 'comp*e*te'~'comp*e*titive' with the failure of this change to occur in 'obese'~'obesity', and the optionality of the change in 'beast'~'beastial'.

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Analogously, "crumby" lost its "b" over the last half-century as the word lost its connection with "crumbs" and now anything of shoddy quality might be called "crummy". – Malvolio Jul 5 '11 at 17:16
@Malvolio: In fact, the word "crumb" did not have a "b" in Old English, so I'm not sure that "crummy" is any newer than "crumby." – sumelic Oct 8 '15 at 1:48
@sumelic -- "crummy" in the sense of "bad" dates from WWII but both spellings seem to be equally popular before then. – Malvolio Oct 8 '15 at 10:41

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