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How did the word buoy come to be pronounced "BOO-ee" in most of the US? The British pronunciation "BOY" as in the word buoyancy or buoyant (which both countries pronounce the same) seems to be pretty straight-forward, so where did the US version come from?

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I had no idea this was pronounced differently in the US! Thanks for enlightening me :) –  Loquacity May 8 '11 at 7:31
You should realize that buoyancy /ˈbujənsi/ and buoyant /ˈbujənt/ can also pronounced be differently in the U.S. The American Heritage dictionary says there are two acceptable pronunciations for all three words, although in the Northeast the BOY pronunciation for buoy is quite rare, and I had always assumed that it was just being mispronounced by people who had read the word before hearing it; the BOY pronunciation for buoyancy is quite a bit more common, but I have certainly heard it pronounced both ways. –  Peter Shor May 8 '11 at 10:57
@Peter, interesting. I can't say I've heard buoyancy or buoyant pronounced that way, but maybe I'm just blocking it out. –  Sam May 8 '11 at 13:18
It's possible you might not have noticed. The two pronunciations of buoyancy have the same number of syllables, so they're much less distinct than the two pronunciations of buoy. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 15:49
I've always heard people pronounce it "BOO-wee." All in northeast US, however. –  Misha Rosnach Jul 18 at 2:15

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Apart from this related answer, Etymonline has:

buoy (n.) late 13c., perhaps from either O.Fr. buie or M.Du. boeye, both from W.Gmc. *baukn "beacon" (cf. O.H.G. bouhhan, O.Fris. baken). OED, however, supports M.Du. boeie, or O.Fr. boie "fetter, chain" (see boy), "because of its being fettered to a spot."

So you have two possible origins, one originally pronounced [bɥi(ə)] (French) or [bœɛi] (Dutch), and the other [boi] (French) or [bœi] (Dutch), all of which could be Anglicised as either disyllabic [buwiː] (boo-ee) or monosyllabic [bɔɪ] (boy).

I suspect both pronunciations have been around for a while in English, and the colonial divide just drew a more distinct (regional) line between them.

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What happened to your meaningless ornamental header? :P –  Andy F May 8 '11 at 17:59
@AndyF: I did say may. :P –  Jon Purdy May 8 '11 at 18:04

One common 18th century pronunciation of buoy in England (and presumably also America), seems to have been bwoy (/bwɔɪ/). The book A Practical Grammar of English Pronunciation by Benjamin Humphrey Smart (London, 1810) says

Bw, in the words
(9) Buoy, buoyance
is represented by bu. They should never be pronounced boy, boyance.

I believe that this comment shows that both bwoy and boy were used in 1810 England. This pronunciation also explains why buoy is not spelled boy.

The 1892 International Webster's Dictionary gives both boy and bwoy as pronunciations.

It's not hard to imagine the pronunciation bwoy turning into boo-ee. But it's also possible that in 18th century England, besides the pronunciations boy and bwoy, there was a third, boo-ee, which now only survives in the U.S. I would tend to lean towards the theory that the boo-ee pronunciation was brought to American from England, because the OED gives a 1603 citation where the word is spelled "bowie", which seems to indicate that this pronunciation existed in England then.

Finally, addressing the question of which pronunciation of buoy is "correct"—according to Mr. Smart, we're all pronouncing it wrong.

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Not me—I've always pronounced buoy as ‘bwoy’. I always thought it was just some odd idiosyncrasy of my own invention, but it turns out I'm just being historically correct. :-D –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 7 '14 at 11:32

Having grown up in Maryland and Virgina, states with as much water as land, and having a long maritime tradition, I have always heard the word as Boo-wee, and it was a shibboleth, to see if you were really a boater/yachter, as mountain folk (from western MD, western VA and WV) were consistantly ignorant of yachting terms and always struggled to pronounce it correctly. I had never heard 'boy' until travelling to New England. Boatswain, pronounced Bow-sun, and the bow of a ship, pronounced bau, not bo, were similarly used as shibboleths. During the 1960s and 70s, there was a consistant tension between WASPs and Ethnics, and mountain folk, although as Anglo-Saxon as one cared to be, were still treated like they had "foreign" blood by the WASP elites. As an Irish Catholic with a grandmother in West Virginia, I was one of these people whose family had come in from elsewhere, and by sending me to prep school in Annapolis Maryland and by owning a boat, my parents made it possible for me to pass as "lily" white, as long as they didn't hear my last name, which was conveniently missing it's O'.

Now as for why we use this pronunciation, it seems closer to the Dutch words mentioned by others in this forum, and I suspect it is the New York pronunciation, as people still speak with a strong Dutch accent there, saying "Duh" for "Dhuh", as in "Get in the car" (pron. "duh caa"). To outsiders, New Yorkers can be unintelligible, even to other people from relatively nearby places, like upstate NY, Phildelphia, or Connecticut. In general, the DC area has a distinctly Southern accent, and I believe the pronunciation "Boy" is limited to New England, which still has traces of an English accent. As for pronouncing it like it's spelled, "uo" would be "oo", and "y" would be "ee". As usual, the English vowels U and O always have a trailing "W" sound, hense "ee" becomes "wee".

My humble speculation,

Maxx (O') Cassidy, of Bowie (Prounouced Buoy), Maryland, USA.

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Pronunciations of buoy are not governed only those who happen to live near a seaboard, let alone which region. I'd grown up in Minnesota, about as far from an ocean as we get in North America, and had always heard and used the word 'buoy' as a homonym of boy, never the two-syllable pronunciation boo-ee.

The first several times I'd heard it as if it were boo-ee, I was startled at itswhat I believed to be mispronunciation. The 'buoy' part of words like buoyant has in my experience always been the 'boy' sound, also as used in the phrase 'buoyed up' meaning that something was lifted or had risen, had become more cheerful, usually due to good news or something of that sort.

It's not merely a mid-western regional pronunciation, either. Lifebuoy is a long-established soap brand of Unilever. Two syllables not three, accent on the first syllable, pronounced life-boy.

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I've lived in Minnesota for 40 years, and "boo-ee" is the only pronunciation I recall hearing. Of course, my boating here has been primarily on Pepin and Byllesby, not "up north". (And I sold my boat about 8 years ago.) –  Hot Licks Jul 18 at 2:11

I believe that the pronunciation of buoy may be partially regional: my sister-in-law from Maryland pronounces it 'bu-wee'; my husband and I-who live in New England-say 'boy'.

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Welcome to ELU.SE. Currently, this answer is merely a comment because it doesn't actually answer the "Why" question. Could you expand on the answer to offer a reason for that difference? –  Andrew Leach Sep 7 '14 at 9:31

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