Drawer-Draw Conflation

Photo: Marcus Gossler

Photo: Marcus Gossler

I’ve known New Yorkers who, despite exhibiting few traces of “Brooklynese,” pronounce “drawer” as if it were “draw.”* These are folks, mind you, who pronounce each and every other r, yet still maintain this r-less exception. So what’s with “draw?”

To be fair to my New York friends, most Americans pronounce “drawer” in an “illogical” way. The word technically has two morphemes (smallest units of meaning): draw + er, suggesting a container that can be “drawn” out**. But many pronounce it as if it rhymed with “lore” (i.e. had one morpheme). You’ll likely find first-graders who misspell the word “droar” or “dror” for this very reason.

A simple experiment demonstrates my point. Compare “I opened the drawer” with “Marissa was a good drawer” (one who draws). It’s likely that (if you’re American) these words are not homophones; A Californian, for instance, might pronounce the first word dɹɔɚ (“drore”) but the latter dɹɑɚ (“DRAH-er”).

Another reason we may treat “drawer” as having a single morpheme, I suspect, is because we strongly associate the suffix -er with the agentive case; that is, we add “-er” to words to suggest an active rather than passive noun. The situation is more complex than that (British “trainers” does not describe “shoes that train”). But there is something intuitively passive about a drawer, so again, we don’t tend to think of it as “something that draws.”

Since the word’s components don’t quite add up, then, few of us probably learn the term as draw-er as children. We more likely learn “drore” or “draw” or some other pronunciation that appears to be completely arbitrary.

I’m not entirely sure why New Yorkers say “draw” as opposed to “drore.” But I do know that “draw” is not really more peculiar than “drore.” Both pronunciations are exceptional, both slightly diverting from normal pronunciation patterns. To shift from one to the other requires that you swap one variant that doesn’t make sense given the spelling and etymology to another variant that also doesn’t make sense for the same reasons.

Any New Yorkers out there who conflate “drawer” and “draw?” Or others who have pronounce this word in an unusual way?

*This occurs with Eastern New Englanders and perhaps some American Southerners as well. My impression, though, is that it’s somewhat less common among people from those regions who speak General American English. Given the relative infrequency of “drawer,” though, it’s just not an easy thing to examine.

**”Drawers,” meaning undergarments and/or pants, almost certainly has the same etymology.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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33 Responses to Drawer-Draw Conflation

  1. I have noticed this in Lindsay Graham (Greenville, SC) in the word “terror” which he says /tɛrə/ but pronounces all his other Rs. Also Sean Hannity (New York) when he says “power” and “horror”. Hannity has an interesting accent. He has no New Yorkisms except for pronouncing horrid and corridor and orange the New York way. His /aʊ/ vowels are almost /eaʊ/ and all of his /æ/ vowels are /iæ/.

    • Ben W says:

      Hmm? You say Hannity has “no New Yorkisms” except for horrid/corridor/orange/Florida, but then describe his very East-Coast pronunciations of two vowels.

  2. I’m from cleveland and differentiate the two types of “drawer” the thing in a dresser or desk is /droɚ/ and the artist is /drɔ:.ɚ/

  3. Sarah says:

    IMO “draw” is peculiar coming from a person who otherwise pronounces all his/her R’s. “Drore” makes more sense to me because “drore” is the pronunciation you get when the [ɔ:] (“aw”) coalesces with the [ɚ] (“er”).

  4. Perhaps we should call them drawees? Things that can be drawn out?

  5. Larry Davidson says:

    Growing up in New Jersey, I have always pronounced “drawer” as “drore,” but many other Jerseyans pronounce it “draw.” There are, of course, many ways in which New Jersey dialects resemble some New York City dialects.

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    When I was a child in central New Jersey, I pronounced it “draw”; when I put away childish things, I pronounced it “draw-er.” The practice could be put down to an element of non-rhoticity in my idiolect: I routinely pronounce “quarter,” “caw-ter”: and “corner,” “cawner,” and the name of a nearby community, “Cah-der-ET” instead of “Car-teret.” Dropping the “-er” from drawer may be a spillover from the accents of Jersey City and Bayonne, but it could also have to do with the juxtaposition of the two vowels, “a” and “e.”

    • Amy Stoller says:

      This kind of r-dissimilation is not uncommon even in otherwise fully rhotic American speech. See http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/bls/past_meetings/bls34/abstracts34/Hall.pdf

      I, too, do not pronounce the first r in “quarter,” though I do pronounce it in “quart” (nor do I pronounce the the “qu” as /kw/ in either word, I use /k/ – which I think may be more of a New York City marker than the r-dissimilation is). I pronounce the first r in “corner” but delete it in “corner store.”

      It’s not surprising that people in historically non-rhotic areas should do this, but I really don’t think it’s exclusive to US Northeasterners and parts of the South.
      Most Americans in my experience drop the first r in “surprise” – and some, in what I can only think is a widely spread sort of hyper-correction, add one to the first syllable of “familiar.”

      FWIW, I say “drawer” as dɹɔˑɚ or dɹɔɚ, depending on phrasing and the overall rapidity of my speech. I would expect to hear non-rhotic New Yorkers say dɹɔˑə or dɹɔə, not dɹɔː, but one does have to allow for personal variation. I have definitely seen people from fully rhotic areas of the US spell the word “draw” – often enough that I have sometimes wondered whether it is really a dialect variant, not just an accent one.

      Of course, my personal experience is not a statistically valid sample!

  7. Jan Freeman says:

    In Boston, I’m not surprised to hear “drawer” as “draw”; but I have been surprised, over the years I’ve lived here, by how often I’ve seen it spelled “draw,” even in advertisements and in edited prose. Could be widespread: A listing from eBay UK offers a “WHITE AND WALNUT SIX DRAW CHEST OF DRAWS.”

    • Laura says:

      The UK usage is why I’m here. I was thoroughly surprised (pronouncing both first and second r) to see it used by a Brit, and set off on a quest to find out how that happened.

  8. Tom says:

    I have a friend who pronounces “chest of drawers” as “chester drore” (no “s” on the end). He talks so fast I can never stop him to correct him. I’ve never heard anyone else say this the way he does (in South Jersey, where I’m from).

    I do say “drore” for the desk part and “draw-er” for the artist.

    • Dan says:

      But you’ve heard “chester drores” before, right? My mom says she used to think that’s what it was when she was a kid.

      • Tom says:

        I thought there must have been people who would say that “chester drores” version; thanks for confirming!

  9. AL says:

    Maybe there’s something about the aw+er combination that’s difficult to pronounce?

    I say dror for drawer, and loiyer for lawyer.

    • Gonfal says:

      Well, if I saw “lawyer” as with the two halves separately – “lah”-“yer”, then I get something that sounds unfortunately like “liar”…

      So “loiyer” is probably the best one can do.

  10. Mark says:

    I didn’t remember until I read the first footnote, but that pronunciation rings a bell with me. My grandmother and her children grew up in northwest Georgia, and they had a similar pronunciation for similar words (more like “draw” but not quite). I don’t specifically remember the word drawer, but it seems like there were words of similar pronunciation. Maybe they will occur to me later.

  11. m.m. says:

    wow, so i just realized i can have a really hard time distinguishing between the two in spontaneous utterances without context

    drawer is [ɔ~o]
    draw/drawer is [ɒ~ɔ] (thanks alot CVS)
    the rhotic for both fluxes between [ɹ] and [ɚ]
    darn my english

  12. Marc Leavitt says:

    And then there’s intrusive “r” mucking things up, as in: “A drawer (dror) is a drawer (dror) is a drawer (dror) – unless it’s a draw?

  13. Jesse A. says:

    I’m an eastern New Englander who says “draw” but more or less pronounces all my other other “r”s. I’m also very inconsistant with “draw,” sometimes saying “drore,” (friends mock me for it.) I’m not sure what context causes me to say one or the other.

  14. Randy says:

    I learned to say “drawer” before I ever learned to spell it, but I did know “draw”. I was very confused when I first encountered “drawer” while reading to myself. I couldn’t figure out why the story I was reading was talking about a person who draws.

  15. Ben W says:

    Ben, I’d suggest you edit your “Californian” pronunciations and at least put a dot in the second one, because as currently indicated it doesn’t make it clear that “drawer” (person who draws) has two syllables, and even for someone with the cot-caught merger, this version of “drawer” does not rhyme with “car”. Nicholas Chmielewski’s pronunciations are probably better (and BTW match my speech exactly).

    According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the same dual pronunciation of “drawer” exists in British English, given as drɔː(r) vs. ˈdrɔːə(r).


    The American “drore” pronunciation is simply the expected outcome of the sound change ɔːɹ ==> oɚ (in the process, reanalyzing “or” as “o” + “r” instead of “aw” + “r”; so that in cot-caught-merged speech, “core” and “car” do NOT merge).

  16. Alex says:

    I’m a NYer and have never known anyone to pronounce it as “draw” – everyone I know says “drore.” In fact, I always thought it was people from New England who pronounce it as “draw” since most people I know from there say it that way.

    • Spike says:

      Are you a new yorker or from New York? There is a big difference. The first being someone from New York state(mainland) and the latter being from the five boroughs or Long Island. Pronunciation is much different upstate and in many parts is very countryish.

  17. IVV says:

    Wouldn’t the “drawer” = “draw” issue in some New York accents be more of a rhoticity thing? I think drawer is dɹoɹ and draw is dɹɑ (Californian lack of [ɔ] again, and one who draws is a dɹɑːɚ). But when I hear a non-rhotic Northeastern accent say the words, drawer become dɹɔːə, and draw becomes… dɹɔə. At least, that’s what I get in my ears.

    • Zach says:

      From first paragraph:

      “I’ve known New Yorkers who, despite exhibiting few traces of “Brooklynese,” pronounce “drawer” as if it were “draw.”* These are folks, mind you, who pronounce each and every other r, yet still maintain this r-less exception.”

  18. Rodger C says:

    I’ve also noticed Northeasteners who pronounce “drawing” as “droring.” What is the relative distribution of this usage and “drawer” as “draw”?

    At any rate, it’s plane that these people don’t have a prare. 🙂

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  20. Steve Bronfman says:

    People are lazy. They often garble words like drawer. I know I do, and I otherwise speak very well.

  21. Kathleen says:

    Interesting post. From northeastern Connecticut, and not r-less in general I, too, grew up calling that thing you pull out of a bureau a “draw” until I was teased for it at boarding school. Since then I always say “drore.”

  22. Lynn says:

    I’m one of those New Yorkers who “despite exhibiting few traces of “Brooklynese,” pronounces “drawer” as if it were “draw.” “. My Californian husband and children delight in making fun of my “draw”, gleefully asking me to repeat what I’ve just said :”Could you get the napkins from the draw”. “What did you say mom?!” And despite exhibiting hardly any r-lessness, I do have r insertions . I’m a linguist and every semester when I teach sociolinguistics I tell my students about Labov’s “Marther’s”Vineyard study.

  23. Spike says:

    I was born in Queens and have lived on Long Island and Upstate NY most my life. I live in NC and.my fiance and most of my friends get a kick out of how I pronounce “draw” “New Yawk” and “Flahrida”.

  24. Tim says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t write about drawerdoor conflation. I used to have trouble with those 2.

  25. Rachel says:

    I’ve always said “drow-er,” with a slight drawl or emphasis on the “row.” I pronounce it like it rhymes with “lower.” I’ve always thought that was perfectly normal, but I get called out on it every once in a while. I once got in a discussion with my friend on whether or not it was technically correct to pronounce it that way….managed to find one online dictionary that listed that as a possible pronunciation. I have no clue where I picked it up, but I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.