How did we get the word and place name Slough?

Slough. It is probably one of the words that somehow invoke negative connotations, even without actually being to that place itself. Located 32km west of Central London (defined as Charing Cross), this town in Berkshire has a population of more than 160 000, and is actually home to a lot of headquarters (or UK HQs, at least) of global companies, among the highest concentrations of such outside London.

But its name still feels rather disgusting to say. YouTubers, such as Tom Scott, have made scenes or skits mocking the town’s name, and even the town itself. Like other English towns like Penistone and Scunthorpe, Slough is not really a pleasing name to articulate. While we may not know why such a word invokes such aversion in some speakers, like the moist-aversion phenomenon, there is another side of Slough we would want to know. Why on earth is this place called Slough? (Or why does Slough exist?)

For the uninformed, Slough actually rhymes with the word “bough”, and not words like “through” nor “though”. But it was first recorded in the late 12th century as Slo, and later Sloo in the 14th century. Later in the 15th century, words like Slowe or Slow started being used. So, where did this come from?

Etymologists have proposed two possible ways the town derived its name. Where Slough is located, has a bunch of blackthorn bushes growing in the vicinity. These blackthorns, or Prunus spinosa, are also called sloe in English. The word “sloe” has several cognates with the Germanic cousins of English, including the Modern German word Schlehe or Schledorn. Stretching this by a further bit, it could share something in common with the Slavic words for it. Polish has Ε›liwa, which could mean a plum of any species. Specifically, sloe translates to Polish as Ε›liwa tarnina.

The other origin would also relate to where Slough is located. A slough, in British English, is defined as a hollow, or a dip in the land, filled with mud, or a bog, according to the Collins Dictionary. It could also mean a depression filled with mud, which also gives slough its alternate meaning of “a state of depression”. So in British English, this hydrological term often refers to a specific type of marsh, swamp, or wetland. This is also coincidentally where Slough is located. Rainwater from the nearby Chilton Hills to the River Thames would flow through this area, creating these sloughs. Slough could have been also named after this geographic feature. This would have been related to the Middle High German word sluoche or Middle Low German word sloch, which meant a “ditch” or a “muddy place” respectively.

However, there is one thing I could not quite find an answer to. That is, why the town Slough, as some video makers may put it, sounds appalling. After all, several recognisable businesses and brands have offices there, and it also has the largest industrial estate in a single private ownership (Segro) in Europe. Perhaps the simplest explanation would be classical old British humour. Having lived in the UK for three years, my friends have made fun of other British places, including towns in the North, or even Wales. Perhaps anywhere one is from, there would be certain places or regions they would make fun of, one might just find more examples pop up after some small talk.


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