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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

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 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 at 11:32

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 at 9:31

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