OED states that both "a bow" as in the weapon and "to bow" or "a bow" as in to incline at the knee share a common etymology:

Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English boga, corresponding to Old Frisian boga, Old Saxon bogo (Middle Dutch booghe, Dutch boog), Old High German bogo (Middle High German boge, modern German bogen), Old Norse bogi (Swedish båge, Danish bue) < Germanic *bugon-, < stem bug- of beugan, to bend.

However the two words are pronounced quite differently. I was wondering when and why the two meanings diverged in pronunciation.

  • Relevant: Why does "ow" have two different sounds?
    – herisson
    Feb 27, 2016 at 2:22
  • Similar - "sow" (plant seed) and "sow" (female pig), or "row" (line) and "row" (argument). I think the "ow" ending is unique in having so many heterophones! Apr 7, 2017 at 14:55
  • @TobySpeight Also "mow" (cut down) and "mow" (haystack) and even "mow" (grimace, which apparently can also be said something like moo and also Moe in Scottish English), and "tow" (pull something) and "tow" (flax, as in tow-headed).
    – 1006a
    Apr 7, 2017 at 21:29
  • @1006a In my experience and to my knowledge the main meanings of "mow" and the two meanings of "tow" have the same pronunciation (they rhyme with "grow"). Could I suggest that the minor meaning of "mow" as a grimace (which I have never come across) is a version of or is closely related to "moue"?
    – BoldBen
    Apr 7, 2017 at 22:13
  • @BoldBen Per the OED, the haystack version of "mow" (n. 1 of 6!) is pronounced to rhyme with "cow" in both British and American English. This definition was updated as of 2003, so I think that would be a fairly accurate pronunciation. However, it's a rare enough word that I imagine most people outside of certain farming communities have never actually said it and have heard it said but rarely. The grimace (n.2) is indeed probably a cognate of moue, but entered the lexicon way back in the 14th century. It can be said either way, both US and UK, but ...
    – 1006a
    Apr 7, 2017 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


Even if the words come from words where the base form is the same, they seem to come from different forms of that word. On dictionary.com you can see different forms in the etymology:

For the verb:

before 900; Middle English bowen (v.), Old English būgan; cognate with Dutch buigen; akin to German biegen, Gothic biugan, Old Norse buga, etc.

And for the noun:

before 1000; Middle English bowe (noun), Old English boga; cognate with Dutch boog, German Bogen, Old Norse bogi; akin to bow

So, it seems that the difference was there already when the words were introduced in English. I don't know why they are spelled the same in Modern English, though. Most other languages seem to have diffent spellings for the words, for example Swedish buga for the verb and båge for the noun.

  • 1
    And modern West Frisian has "bûge" with an [u] sound for the verb and "bôge" with a sound like French ô) for the noun. Old English had long u in the verb which regularly becomes [bou], like "hus" became house etc. The noun probably a long o sound and the guttural g became a [w] in both words. So it seems completely regular to me, as regards the sounds. The spellings colliding is a different matter.. Nov 7, 2018 at 22:50
  • They are spelled the same way because English spelling is not rational. But compare row and row, sow and sow, lower and lower, flow and flower, show and shower. We have the same default spelling for two different sounds. Jun 5, 2019 at 12:22

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