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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 4: Booze)

By Anatoly Liberman

Booze is an enigmatic word, but not the way ale, beer and mead are.  Those emerged centuries ago, and it does not come as a surprise that we have doubts about their ultimate origin.  The noun booze is different: it does not seem to predate the beginning or the 18th century, with the verb booze “to tipple, guzzle” making its way into a written text as early as 1300 (which means that it turned up in everyday speech some time earlier).  The riddles connected with booze are two.

First, why did the noun appear so much later than the verb?  A parallel case will elucidate the problem. The verb meet is ancient, while the noun meet is recent, and we can immediately see the reason for the delay: sports journalists needed a word for a “meeting” of athletes and teams and coined a meet, whose popularity infuriated some lovers of English, but, once the purists died out, the word became commonplace (this is how language changes: if a novelty succeeds in surviving its critics, it stays and makes the impression of having been around forever).  But the noun booze is not a technical term and should not have waited four hundred years before it joined the vocabulary.  Second, the verb booze is a doublet of bouse (it rhymes with carouse, which is fair).  Strangely, bouse has all but disappeared, and booze (sorry for a miserable pun) is on everybody’s lips.  However, it is not so much the death of bouse that should bother us as the difference in vowels.   The vowel we have in cow or round was once “long u” (as in today’s coo).  Therefore, bouse has the pronunciation one expects, whereas booze looks Middle English.  In the northern dialects of English “long u” did not become a diphthong, and this is probably why uncouth still rhymes with youth instead of south.  Is booze a northern doublet of bouse?  One can sense Murray’s frustration with this hypothesis.  He wrote: “Perhaps really a dialectal form” (and cited a similar Scots word).  It is the most uncharacteristic insertion of really that gives away Murray’s dismay.  His style, while composing entries, was business-like and crisp; contrary to most people around us, he preferred not to strew his explanations with really, actually, definitely, certainly, and other fluffy adverbs: he was a scholar, not a preacher.

Whatever the causes of the modern pronunciation of booze, one etymology will cover both it and bouse.  So what is the origin of bouse?  This word is surrounded by numerous nouns and verbs, some of which must be and others may be related to it.  First of all, its Dutch and German synonyms buizen and bausen spring to mind.  Both are rare to the extent of not being known to most native speakers, but their use in the past has been recorded beyond any doubt.  Most other words refer to swelling, violent or erratic movement, and noise: for instance, Dutch buisen “strike, knock” and, on the other hand, beuzelen “dawdle, trifle,” Norwegian baus “arrogant; irascible” and bause “put on airs” (which partly explains the sense of Dutch boos and German böse “bad, wicked; angry”), and Engl. busy (Dutch bezig).  Busybody shows that busy did not always mean “occupied”: it rather referred to meddling and doing things in an irritating way.  We can see the pure root of such b-words in Engl. boo (compare it with bo– in Bo-peep ~ peek-a-boo), Dutch bui “gust, squall,” as well as Russian bystryi “quick” and boi-us’ “I am afraid.  When it comes to swelling and puffing up, German words ending in sch (from s) present themselves, such as bauschen “swell.”  I hope it will one day be possible to show that French bizarre (which has cognates elsewhere in the Romance languages), the etymon of Engl. bizarre, is of Germanic origin.  Italian bizarre means “angry” (thus, a rather close synonym of German böse), while Spanish and Portuguese bizarro means “handsome” and “brave” (what is repellent arrogance to one is admirable courage to another: compare Norwegian baus “arrogant; irascible,” mentioned above).  I also think that Engl. bustle “a frame or pad thrusting out a woman’s skirt,” an obscure 18th-century word, must be related to German Bausch, which formerly meant “handful; armful” and now means only “ball” (of paper or wool),” puff” (on a sleeve), “pleat,” and so forth.

Curiously, scholars dealing with the oldest stages of language boldly reconstruct Indo-European roots to which they add numerous “extensions” (also called enlargements and determinatives) and obtain nests of seemingly related words.  But when it comes to later periods, which, one would think, pose fewer problems, they become much more cautious, even timid.  One can read in our best etymological dictionaries that German böse, Engl. busy (along with its Dutch cognate bezig), and English bustle (the noun, as above) are words of unknown origin.  The same holds for Engl. boast, which rather obviously belongs with swelling and puffing up (the Old English for “boast” was boi-an, a word like Dutch bui and Russian boi-us’, a mere root, as it were) and boost (a 19th-century “Americanism,” that is, most likely, a word brought to the New World from some northern British dialect).  Old dictionaries were full of fanciful derivations.  The discovery of sound correspondences turned etymology into a semblance of an exact science, a praiseworthy development to be sure, but words tend to grow like mushrooms on stumps (huge rootless clusters) and do not always march like soldiers on parade.  German linguists coined the term sound gesture (Lautgebärde) for such vaguely symbolic groups as the one being discussed here.  In our case, the “gesture” is bo- ~ bu– for naming things and actions that refer to swelling and noise.  The consonant s appended itself to bo- ~ bu-, and as a result we have all the words mentioned above.  There is a temptation to co-opt more and more look-alikes into this group.  One wonders where to stop, but this is a perennial problem in the study of related words.  I don’t think that the “gesture” stops at bouse.

If this conclusion is right, bouse meant approximately “to revel noisily.”  What begins as a show of conviviality often ends in a brawl.  Judging by the way the verb was used by Browning and other poets, it meant “feast, carouse” and had no vulgar connotations.  The Century Dictionary quotes Keats: “As though bold Robin Hood / Would, with his Maid Marian, / sup and bowse [sic] from horn and can” (Lines on the Mermaid Tavern).  Later the noun was formed to match the verb.  One has to agree with Murray: booze probably reached the Standard (in his days the phrase was the literary language) from the North, retained its dialectal pronunciation, and stayed as “a low word” (perhaps also thanks to its pronunciation!) for liquor and all kinds of cheap swill.

A short postscript is due here.  Russian has the noun buza “an alcoholic drink” and the verb buzit’ “to brawl” (both stressed on the second syllable). Their origin need not delay us here, but the connection is instructive: from “liquor” to “brawl.”

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. John Cowan

    A.E. Housman used the spelling boose in “The Oracles” (Last Poems XXV), suggesting that it had not stabilized by 1922 when the poems were published, or at the least by 1885-1910 when (according to Housman) three-quarters of them were written.

  2. […] of the word “bouse” in reference to drinking alcohol in English-language texts from the 14th century, and the spelling “booze” reportedly showed up in the 17th […]

  3. […] of the word “bouse” in reference to drinking alcohol in English-language texts from the 14th century, and the spelling “booze” reportedly showed up in the 17th […]

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