This word has been in the news a lot lately, specifically American news stories. It’s mainly only used in American English, and for that reason I’ve actually never heard it spoken aloud.
It refers to an unpaid leave of absence, though perhaps appropriately, given the dominance of capitalism in American society, this can be one requested by an employee, or enforced by a company or government.
Anyway, usually I don’t give much thought to words I’ve only read and not heard (except for that time I gave them a lot of thought). Furlough is interesting though, because I could never know how it’s pronounced.
Usually I can easily tell how a word’s pronounced, even taking English’s inconsistency with regard to spelling into account. But with furlough, it was harder to know. Could the second syllable rhyme with cough? Or enough? though? thought? lough? plough? hiccough? thorough?
What a tricksy collection of letters -ough is! There isn’t another combination of letters in English with such a variety of pronunciations to warrant its own Wikipedia page.
I always had a feeling it rhymed with though, eh… though. It just sounds and feels right. Though I occasionally flirted with the idea of it rhyming with lough (lock). But no, I was right the first time, and it does indeed sound like “furlow!”
Of course I encounter words unique to American English all the time, and I don’t think much about them. Furlough just looks so old-fashioned though that it seems to belong more to British English than the more modern Enlightenment American English. But we’ve seen before how American English can actually hold on to elements of British English long abandoned in Britain itself due to European influences.
Perhaps its use in American English is also due to the fact it comes from early 16th-century Dutch, and was preserved by Dutch speakers emigrating to the American continent at that time who continued using its original Dutch version.
Whatever the reason for its retention in the United States, expect to see it everywhere.