The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

Today’s word of the day arrives as I am rereading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:

I do not always find the Word of the Day terribly enlightening, in part because Merriam-Webster only gives a brief etymology. And it is the stories within the word that I love to learn about.

However, this word fascinates me because of its resonance rather than its history as a word. It immediately evokes for me John Bunyan‘s allegory of Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress. While I struggle to find sympathy with this strange book, for various reasons I find myself coming back to it again and again. One of those reasons is that I played the Pilgrim, Christian, in an undergraduate musical rendition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, called “The Upward Way.” In a fashion that is more intimate than metaphor alone, the Pilgrim’s tale is in some ways inside of me.

In seeing today’s Word of the Day, “slough,” I could not help but think of Pilgrim’s struggle in the “Slough of Despond.” I remember the debate we had about pronouncing that word in the stage production. Peeking at a revised version of the M-W entry will show why:

slough (noun)

pronunciation: slau̇; in the US (except in New England) ˈslü is usual for sense 1 with those to whom the sense is familiar; British usually ˈslau̇ for both senses 

definition:

1a: a place of deep mud or mire; b or less commonly slew or slue \ ˈslü  \ 1) swamp; 2) an inlet on a river, backwater; 3) a creek in a marsh or tide flat; 2: a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection

slough (verb)

definition (when pronounced as above): to engulf in a slough; to plod through or as if through mud  (or “slog” through )

slough (noun)

definition (when pronounced as ˈsləf , sometimes spelled “sluff”): 1: the cast-off skin of a snake; 2: a mass of dead tissue separating from an ulcer; 3: something that may be shed or cast off

slough (noun)

definition (when pronounced as ˈsləf , sometimes spelled “sluff”): 1a: to become shed or cast off; b: to cast off one’s skin; c: to separate in the form of dead tissue from living tissue; 2: to crumble slowly and fall away; 3: to cast off; 4a: to get rid of or discard as irksome, objectionable, or disadvantageous —usually used with off; b: to dispose of (a losing card in bridge) by discarding

When I encountered the “Slough of Despond” in my script, I immediately said “sluff”–a fairly common word in my growing-up spaces. As a dairy farm kid, behind the milk barn there was a “Slough” of something much more fragrant than the average pond or bog, but no less miry than Despond, which becomes Christian’s trap in the allegory. If we were to have called our manure pit a “Slough” we would have called it a “sloo.” However, “Slough of Shit” really lacks something of Bunyan’s poetry even as it excels in technical specificity. “Manure pit” seemed to do all that was needed on our little farm.

In that theatre read-through all those years ago, my “sluff” pronunciation got a chuckle: what did I intend to slough off? I was asked. I pivoted quickly, but my “sloo” pronunciation created a debate. “No,” someone said, “it’s pronounced ‘slow,’ like ‘cow.” I know about cows and the sloughs that they create, but that pronunciation clanged in my ear.

Had we the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day, no doubt we would have been able to answer the question directly. For our performances in Atlantic Canada and the Northeast US, “Sloo of Despond” would work, whereas “Slow of Despond” would be the word in our other American shows.

I can’t remember how it all worked out. I doubt that I could have changed my pronunciation partway into a tour, in any case. I now suspect that Bunyan’s pronunciation may have been closer to “slow,” but I don’t know for certain.

What the Word of the Day did for me was to cause me to pause in my reading, giving me a new depth of understanding about the Slough named Despond. Here is the place where Christian and Pliable, walking together, fall into the Slough:

  PLIABLE. Well, my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things: come on, let us mend our pace.

  CHRISTIAN. I cannot go as fast as I would, by reason of this burden that is on my back.

  Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain: and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.

  PLI. Then said Pliable, Ah, neighbour Christian, where are you now?

  CHR. Truly, said Christian, I do not know.

  PLI. At this Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect between this and our journey’s end? May I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone for me. And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house: so away he went, and Christian saw him no more.

  Wherefore Christian was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone; but still he endeavoured to struggle to that side of the slough that was farthest from his own house, and next to the wicket-gate; the which he did, but could not get out because of the burden that was upon his back: but I beheld in my dream, that a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him what he did there.

  CHR. Sir, said Christian, I was bid to go this way by a man called Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape the wrath to come. And as I was going thither, I fell in here.

  HELP. But why did not you look for the steps?

  CHR. Fear followed me so hard that I fled the next way, and fell in.

  HELP. Then, said he, Give me thine hand: so he gave him his hand, and he drew him out, Psalm 40:2, and he set him upon sound ground, and bid him go on his way.

  Then I stepped to him that plucked him out, and said, “Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the city of Destruction to yonder gate, is it, that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security?” And he said unto me, “This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended: it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.

  “It is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad. Isa. 35:3,4. His labourers also have, by the direction of his Majesty’s surveyors, been for above this sixteen hundred years employed about this patch of ground, if perhaps it might have been mended: yea, and to my knowledge,” said he, “there have been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart loads, yea, millions of wholesome instructions, that have at all seasons been brought from all places of the King’s dominions, (and they that can tell, say, they are the best materials to make good ground of the place,) if so be it might have been mended; but it is the Slough of Despond still, and so will be when they have done what they can.

In all these years of reading and rereading this text–and bringing it into my story on the stage or in teaching or reading stories about the story–I have missed an aspect of the Slough of Despond, despite it being one of the more personally resonant parts of the story. Today, though, the Word of the Day came as I am reading about Christiana in the “Second Part,” and I laughed about “sluff” and “sloo” and “slow” as I came upon these words again text. But then I stopped up short and reread the passage. It speaks about Christian’s experience of being mired in Despond while his wife Christiana walks on by. In discussing another’s experience, Mr. Fearing’s, though, I read the phrase, “a Slough of Despond in his mind.” Then I kept reading:

He had, I think, a Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him; or else he could never have been as he was. So he came up to the gate–you know what I mean–that stands at the head of this way; and there also he stood a good while before he would adventure to knock. When the gate was opened, he would give back; and give place to others, and say that he was not worthy. For, for all he got before some to the gate, yet many of them went in before him. There the poor man would stand shaking and shrinking; I dare say it would have pitied one’s heart to have seen him; nor would he go back again. At last he took the hammer that hanged on the gate in his hand, and gave a small rap or two; then one opened to him, but he shrunk back as before. He that opened stept out after him, and said, “Thou trembling one, what wantest thou?” With that he fell down to the ground. He that spoke to him wondered to see him so faint. So he said to him, ‘Peace be to thee; up, for I have set open the door to thee; come in, for thou art blest.’ With that he got up, and went in trembling; and when he was in, he was ashamed to show his face.

In thinking about the Slough of Despond, I think I had always thought of it merely as “sin”–sin that mires us on the way, a kind of boggish intimation of Dante‘s frozen underworld. What strikes me in rereading today is that Despond (as the name suggests) is the psychological reality of sin–the fear it creates in us, the shaking and shrinking, the heart-worry that mires us on the upward way. In my heart, that experience manifests as shame and doubt and creeping fear.

But it is a more specific Slough than just the psychological consequence of sin itself. We see how “sin will find you out” becomes a theme in great works, perhaps best pictured in Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Anna in Tolstoy’s novel–which, by the way, I think that Lewis is evoking in the ghosts of The Great Divorce or Weston in Perelandra or a character like Nikabrik in Prince Caspian–but more complex in the character of Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, or in Eustace’s story in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is not accidental that “Draco” is a name that evokes “dragon.”

Rather, this Slough of Despond is a result of the spiritual awakening to sin within us, not merely the sin itself. It is the whole collection of “the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin,” for “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place….”

This is a striking spiritual discovery for my reading of this tale–and my walking in the world with the pilgrim within me.

Four connected points are worth noting.

First, in an intriguing piece of apologetics within the world-building itself, the Slough of Despond is not made by the King of that land, but is a natural feature in that world–the “run-off”, the sludge, the dross-heap, the tailings pond of awakened sin that works industriously within the people of that land. It is their “Manure Pit” of the mind, the “Slough of Shit” that is refuse of spirituality in progress. All the good earth in the country is not enough to reclaim the land as a soil-bed for fruit-bearing plants.

I don’t know if in Bunyan’s speculative world it is possible to compost the Slough of Despond to enrich the land–like we did on the farm, or like what happens with the character of the man with a lizard (a kind of dragon, one might say) in The Great Divorce.

Second, note that Pliable is able to get away while Christian remains mired in clay. Are we to presume that there is a kind of spiritual liberation in being ignorant of our spiritual state? Christian gains his burden, his awakening to his sinful condition, from his encounter with the story of salvation. Leaving it behind as false hope and a path too hard, Pliable easily walks away.

Third, the idea of a “Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him” is a terrible break in the allegory. After all, what else is this if not a story that we carry around with us in spiritual life? However, it is a poignant reminder for careless readers (like me) who miss the message in Christian’s tale and need a sequel for it to do its work.

Finally, Christian makes it out of the Slough of Despond, but still has a burden he carries–the very burden that weighted him down within the mire. Eventually, though, he is able to cast off his burden. In a beautiful synchronicity of language, in teaching the text a couple of weeks ago, I said, “And Christian sloughed off his burden….”

So Christian sluffed off his burden–the burden that threatened to drown him in the sloo/slow of Despond. Today’s Word of the Day did its work.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. John Gough says:

    This is an excellent reflection, thank you, Brenton.
    The inevitable uncertainty about pronunciation (varying from grammatical use — verb, or noun — and region) might best be resolved, for Bunyan’s context, by checking the Complete Oxford English Dictionary. The COED is fundamentally British, and probably cites Bunyan directly as an instance of the word, in contrast to the fundamentally North American Merriam-Webster. English can be different on either side of the Atlantic, just as it can vary within North America and in Britain. You understand this, but Bunyan’s context is firmly British, and probably located in one region in England.
    Perhaps surprisingly, albeit triggered by “Word of the Day”, your focus is on “slough”, with little attention to “Despond” (or I have missed something). Bunyan’s characters discuss the “despond” as related to the psychological effects of self-awareness of sin:
    “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place”.
    I have seen some online dictionaries that actually shift Bunyan’s “despond” to become an alternative meaning for “slough” — depression and unhappiness — a kind of mental trap of personal misery. The Bunyan-esque proximity of the words invites this conceptual shift, so that the “slough”, in this alternative meaning, actually IS the “despond”.
    Of course, the better known cognate, “despondency”, is not a word widely used in modern English, but the sense is familiar as a mix of despair and hopelessness and futility and depression — a mental blinkering, a stranglehold on one’s resilience, self-reliance and emotions.
    As Bunyan describes it, this “slough” is a bottomless, that is, unfillable, swamp, marsh, mire, morass — there are many words for the physical nature of such a piece of treacherous and entrapping wetland. (Quicksand, also, although not usually “sand”. Here the word “quick” has an old English dialect meaning of “living”. One version of the Creed refers to “the quick and the dead”. The “sand” moves — beneath the helpless traveller’s feet — and death ensues. It might be better called “lethalsand”.)
    The fact that, in Bunyan’s relentless allegorising, this swamp is named “Despond”, means it is a daylight equivalent of the “Dark Night of the Soul” — beyond which there is the prospect of the (promised, and hoped for) wicket gate (more etymology needed here), which is the proper start of the pilgrim’s journey away from the doomed city, towards the Celestial City.
    I am probably adding nothing to your stimulating discussion, so I will stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I quite like this, John. I have seen the complete OED, but haven’t got access. I have the OED, which gives us the slau/slow like cow UK pronunciation. I’m not sure how long the great vowel shift kept drifting.
      Or perhaps it was like quicksand. A cool etym-reminder of “quick”. Well done. And we see how a word’s changing meaning (to fast, speed) makes “quicksand” into “fast-moving sand” in lit and film and metaphor, but then “lightning sand” as spoof in The Princess Bride.
      I have a second part of this post that was to reflect on “Despond,” but I never found anything as good to say as your bit here: ” but the sense is familiar as a mix of despair and hopelessness and futility and depression — a mental blinkering, a stranglehold on one’s resilience, self-reliance and emotions.” Nice.
      Is the “Dark Night of the Soul” also a psychological awakening? Have I reduced it in my mind, I wonder, to mere despondency, depression, spiritual struggle?
      I imagine “wicket gate” as evoking all that garden gates do: Eden, court, entries in and out of lanes, a threshold to faerie, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would see the Dark Night of the Soul as the inevitable confrontation with the Shadow aspect of the psyche, and the encounter with the Divine in the depths of the psyche (isn’t there a Biblical passage about God being in the depths and the heights?) It’s a necessary part of the spiritual journey.

      Whereas the Slough of Despond sounds like depression of some sort. I can’t speak to the sin aspects of it because the word sin is not a regular part of my vocabulary and I don’t find it a helpful concept. I think I would prefer to talk about alienation or a sense of separation from the Divine. I like the idea that it’s the effluvia from the inhabitants of the land. I think I’ve got a sense of that when there’s a lot of unpleasant stuff sloshing around in the collective unconscious (e.g., in the UK after the Brexit vote).

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  2. joviator says:

    Down here, I’ve only ever seen “slough” as the second word in the name of a geographical feature, like “Munson’s Slough”. Following that pattern, the name “Manure Slough” would have a nice iambic assonance to it.

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    • John Gough says:

      This is interesting, joviator. In Australia, where I live, the word “slough” is not in everyday usage. The word failed to be relocated from Britain, despite Australia’s origins as British colonial and convict settlements. (This is speaking only of the history of Australian settlement by the British — “slough” is not a word in any European languages involved in the colonisation / invasion. And it is not a word in any Australian Aboriginal language, of course.) Australia tends to have “swamps”, or, in modern terminology, “wet lands”. (The expression “wet lands” is preferred, nowadays, because it has none of the negative associations of (drain the) “swamp”. Wet lands are accepted as a vibrant and crucial component in the diverse features of the natural environment — a valued part of the ecosystem. But maybe that is another story, … )
      Nonetheless, “slough” is certainly known by educated Australians who have some familiarity with John Bunyan’s archetypal image of the “Slough of Despond”. (Maybe it is not known by many Australians, but at least a comic-book edition was part of MY childhood reading, so I speak from personal experience.) And “slough” by those more numerous Australians who know the slough that is a life-saving environmental feature in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic autobiographical novel “The Long Winter” (a valued part of my young adult reading: Pa Ingalls kept his family warm through the appalling winter by burning plaits / braids of coarse slough reeds as a substitute for wood — but that is also another story).
      Importantly, I am very glad to see Brenton exploring the varieties of meanings, and pronunciations, of a key allegorical expression in John Bunyan’s challenging, but inspirational story of faith and hard-earned salvation. The Slough of Despond is no mere sodden wasteland, or manure pit or shit hole. It means much more than that!

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      • The word slough is not widely used in Britain either, unless quoting Bunyan (which most people who know of it, know at one remove from references in other books).

        I’ve never heard anyone use it in Canada (only been here for four years though).

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  3. Susan S says:

    Thank you so much. This goes right along with the Ash Wednesday message I heard a few days ago and is something good to contemplate during Lent. I also appreciate the word study. As a dyslexia tutor, I have really come to appreciate the complexities and curiosities of our language.

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  4. Pingback: The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – Urban Fishing Pole Lifestyle

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  6. Ben says:

    The Slough of Despondency, I think, is the same as the Pit of Acedia (I just made up the Pit). I’ve been doing some reading about acedia and why it’s one of the classic 7 Deadly Sins. I’ve enjoyed Kathleen Norris’ book “Acedia and Me,” as well as Nicole Roccas’ “Time and Despondency.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Donald W. Johnson says:

    Hope this helps you in your quandry: https://www.lexico.com/definition/slough
    [https://www.lexico.com/lexico-logo.png]
    SLOUGH | Meaning & Definition for UK English | Lexico.com
    ‘Crappie and maybe a few largemouth bass had been the alleged focus of this June morning fishing a swamp slough in southeast Texas.’ ‘Creeks, sloughs, bayous, and swamps, including a large cypress swamp at the base of Crowley’s Ridge, ran around the town.’
    http://www.lexico.com

    Don Johnson

    ________________________________

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  8. lolalwilcox says:

    Brenton, I am requesting permission to refer and link to your blog in an upcoming blog post in my series on *The Hero/Heroine’s Journey*. https://lolawilcox.com/blog/ The series focuses on Joseph Campbell’s journey sequence as taught to me by him in 1985. This particular blog’s focus is The Call, and I am featuring the Pilgrim’s Call. I am going to use Chaucer’s *Canterbury Tales *and was going to talk about *Pilgrim’s Progress, especially the slough (sloo) of Despond.* I can’t do it better than you in this blog, so would like to refer readers to this lovely piece of writing.

    I have no where near the readership you do but think that won’t be a problem for you. I’m not sure I need your blessing to post your blog, but much prefer that I have it. If you want to review the post before it goes out next month I’m happy to send it to you, probably next week.

    Also will take this opportunity to thank you for encouraging me to take the Le Guin Worldbuilding Class. I enjoyed every moment of it, and learned a lot that has immediate application in my trilogy project.

    On Thu, Mar 3, 2022 at 8:19 PM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: ” Today’s word of the day arrives as I am > rereading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: > https://twitter.com/MerriamWebster/status/1499369003352924161 I do not > always find the Word of the Day terribly enlightening, in part because > Merriam-Webster only” >

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Many thanks for this! A lot new to me in that ‘Word of the Day’ presentation (and the comment by Donald W. Johnson), of homonyms that are not homophones and appear to have different etymologies. I think before I encountered this detail of Bunyan, I was surprised on my first visit to England (as a 13-year-old) by the place-name and pronunciation, Slough. I’m not sure when I learned more about the meaning – I don’t think immediately. Eilert Ekwall, in his 1947 Third Edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (as scanned in the Internet Archive), notes A.D. 1196 evidence of the spelling “Slo” and glosses “OE sloh [with a long o] ‘slough, mire'”. I somehow marvel at a place not only acquiring but keeping that noun, slough, as its name. (I wonder if this was any part of Beard and Kenney’s place-name Stye in Bored of the Rings?)

    To take up joviator’s metrical attention, ‘Slough of Shit’ could be seen as a cretic, but my first impression was an Old English half-line with two strong beats. (I haven’t paused to check what Siever’s type it might be, or what analogous examples Lewis or Tolkien give in verse.) I wondered about ‘Slough of Ordure’ – too trochaic? As in, too jaunty? But then again with its light accents as perhaps an image of slipping down into it all over again? This got me wondering if John Gough’s fine point about “beyond which there is the prospect of the (promised, and hoped for) wicket gate (more etymology needed here), which is the proper start of the pilgrim’s journey away from the doomed city, towards the Celestial City.” Might the trochee-iamb sequence of ‘Slough of Despond’ already have a sort of prosodic foreshadowing of this, with the paradoxical lift of the strong accent at the end of ‘despond’?

    Your fine attention to “the idea of a ‘Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him'”, made me think of some lines from the second movement of Eliot’s ‘East Coker’:

    In the middle,not only in the middle of the way
    But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
    On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
    And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
    Risking enchantment.

    Might he have not only been thinking of Dante’s “dark wood” and using “grimpen” from The Hound of the Baskervilles, but have had Bunyan in the back of his mind? In any case, they seem complementary images – as well as probably making readers think of the later Lord of the Rings and Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s journey through the Dead Marshes.

    As Susan S said, “something good to contemplate during Lent.” Help and Christian, “one” who “opened to him” and then “stept out after him” and Mr. Fearing – how do we ‘get’, how are we ‘brought’, from despond to compunction? (A theme of Surprised by Joy.)

    Your “beautiful synchronicity of language” strikes me as a likely Seventeenth-century wordplay. And it reminded me of some lines from stanza 3 of the ‘Carol For New Year’s Day’, “The old year now away is fled”, “From a Black Letter Collection, 1642, Ashmolean Library, Oxford” (as edited at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas):

    Now like the snake cast off your skin
    Of evil thoughts and wicked sin,
    And to amend this new year begin:
    God send us a merry new year!

    On a lighter note, I happened to arrive at this post after rewatching a jolly YouTube clip from I Love Lucy on the unpredictabiity of English words ending in ‘ough’.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lolalwilcox says:

    Sending this along again in the hopes of a response before I send my blog to the web designer.

    Like

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  14. As a person from Southern England, I would say “a slew of things” (pronounced sloo, spelled slew). The town called Slough, near London, is pronounced Slow to rhyme with cow. And I’ve always pronounced the muddy puddle in Pilgrim’s Progress as sluff, same as you. I had an ex who jokingly referred to the town of Slough as the Slough of Despond (and pronounced it to rhyme with cow for the joke to work). It’s not very picturesque.

    For etymology, I always go to the online etymology dictionary. It has a range of entries for different senses of slough, sluff, and related words. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=slough

    I may write another comment when I’ve finished reading the post, but wanted to wallow in “slough” for a moment. “Mud, mud, glorious mud — there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.”

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