Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Beating about an etymological bush: the story of the word “carouse”

In a way, this is the continuation of the previous week’s gleanings, because I owe today’s subject to a question from a student of Old English. Although I cannot say anything new about carouse, the story is mildly instructive.

Greeting formulas have probably existed in all societies at all times. Theoretically, since salutations used at presenting a drink to a guest are predictable and formulaic, they should be more or less the same all over the world, but they are not. One formula, recorded already in Old English, has given rise to the word wassail (from “be whole,” that is, “be healthy”; Middle Engl. wassayl). Some such phrases are astoundingly obscure (for instance, mud in your eye); others, even when they look transparent, may defy an easy explanation: here is how and Italian chin-chin are among them. Only your health! needs no etymology: it means what it says. Bottoms up and no heeltaps also tell their story quite clearly.

Mud in your eye, or chin-chin.
Mud in your eye, or chin-chin.

In English, carouse became known at the end of the sixteenth century, just in time for the authors of our first etymological dictionaries—Minsheu (1617) and Skinner (1671)—to include it. Both gave the correct origin of what appears to have been a relatively recent word: they traced it to German garaus, that is, gar aus, as used in the phrase garaus trinken “to drink, quaff completely, to the bottom.”  A similar formula made its way into French. Rabelais knew it. He wrote voir (= boire) carous et alluz. All out, with the adverb out corresponding to German aus, has also been recorded in English. Some researchers believe that the German phrase reached England from France. This is possible but cannot be proved “beyond reasonable doubt.” The famous philologist Gilles Ménage offered the same derivation of carous in his etymological dictionary of French (1650) that we find in Minsheu. Whatever the source of the English word (German or German via French), such a formula must have been borrowed orally, rather than from books. For a while, even the form garaus, with initial g-, had some currency in English. There were enough tipsy Germans all over the continent to make their “wassail cry” widely known. An additional proof of the popularity of German drinking formulas is the existence of Italian brindisi “health, pledge, toast,” from German bring dir’s (= bring dir es), literally, “(I am) bring(ing) it to you.”

The rest of the story is curious only in that it shows the workings of an erratic human mind and how people suffer from self-inflicted wounds. Unfortunately, later etymologists did not believe Minsheu, Ménage, and Skinner. Perhaps some of them had no access to the early dictionaries, but I doubt it, for Skinner and Ménage circulated widely, and, unlike what happens today, reference works were extremely few. Also, at that time, etymological entries often contained nothing but the opinions of the author’s predecessors.

Noah Webster brought out his dictionary in 1828. He wrote: “I know not the real origin of this word. In Persian karoz signifies hilarity, singing, dancing. In German rauschen to rush, fuddle. In Irish craosal is drunkenness, from craos excess, reveling.”  Webster taught himself numerous languages but missed the birth of modern philology; hence this aimless wandering all over the world in search of look-alikes.

The word rouse, which early dictionary makers knew from Shakespeare, means “bumper, large drinking glass,” and there were attempts to derive carouse from rouse. The origin of this rouse is not quite clear. It may be a so-called aphetic form of carouse. (An aphetic form is the product of clipping: fend, as in to fend for oneself, from defend; mend from amend; ‘cause from because; lone from alone; cute, from acute, and the like.) As can be seen, the lost part is usually a prefix. Carouse has no prefix, but words resembling caboose and caboodle, with final stress, perhaps existed even at the time, and in r-less dialects, the likes of curmudgeon and kerfuffle sounded, as though they began with ca-. Thus, carouse perhaps did yield rouse, but the movement in the opposite direction, from rouse to carouse, is improbable.

This is a bumper. See the etymology of bumper in the post for 12.12.2012.
This is a bumper. See the etymology of bumper in the post for 12 December 2012.

The greatest of the old English etymologists was Franciscus Junius (1599-1677). His dictionary, edited by Edward Lye, appeared posthumously, in 1743. Junius, a native speaker of Dutch, made numerous astute remarks, while connecting English and Dutch words.  In his discussion of carouse (naturally, in Latin), he cited Engl. ruse, which he traced to Dutch ruyschen (modern spelling: ruisen) “to make a roaring noise.” Lye added German Reuse “fish trap” to the list. In the story of rouse and carouse, ruse and Reuse can be ignored as certainly irrelevant. But the German cognate of Dutch ruisen is rauschen (the same meaning), and from this verb the noun Rausch “intoxication” has been formed. The verb’s origin is unknown (sound-imitative?); some authorities compare Engl. rush “to dash forward” with it. Carousing and intoxication go together quite well.

Several ideas, mentioned above, are clever, even though we know the answer and realize that carouse has a different origin. Their most obvious weakness is that they do not account for the first syllable of carouse, but it is curious how the vocabulary of conviviality absorbed such similar-sounding words as German Rausch, Engl. rouse, and Engl. carouse; roaring (Dutch ruisen) belongs with that group quite naturally. One could even risk the hypothesis that during the interminable wars of the Early Modern period (think of the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648), European mercenaries used some sort of lingua franca, understood in taverns all over Europe, but that would have been a secondary development.

An ideal place for developing the [premodern] lingua franca of good life.
An ideal place for developing the [premodern] lingua franca of good life.

A few more futile attempts to derive carouse from some noun are known. In the late eighteen-forties, Hensleigh Wedgwood, the main etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, traced carouse to Dutch kroes “cup,” still another word that aligns itself perfectly with carouse, rouse, and the rest. We find this suggestion in the first edition of his dictionary (1859), but he soon saw the light (under the influence of Mahn? See below) and in the three subsequent editions made a statement that his early derivation of carouse had been wrong.  I was unable to discover under what circumstances Webster’s reference to Irish craos “excess, revelry” (apparently, a word borrowed from English) reemerged in another form. One respectable dictionary after another (Worchester, Chambers, and Stormonth) cited Irish craos “large mouth; revelry” as the etymon of carouse. The last to do so was Charles Mackay, who wrote good poetry and studied Shakespeare’s language and Scots with great profit, but one day decided that most words of English and other European languages go back to Irish Gaelic, the language he knew very well. The result of his delusion was a dictionary full of useful surveys and crazy ideas. He, not unexpectedly, also fell for the craos – carouse connection.

Has it been an instructive or a disheartening travel? The solution lay in full view already on Day One. There was no sphynx, no riddle, but scholars made wide circles around the obvious, deviating farther and farther from the right answer. Although Webster-Mahn adopted the correct etymology as early as 1864, this fact did not deter many learned people from roaming in the gloaming. The truth is rather simple (“all out with it”), while the guesses have been audacious and brilliant. Truth often suffers from excessive zeal, for it may look modest in comparison with the glitter of false hypotheses.

Roaming in the gloaming.
Roaming in the gloaming.

I also meant to say something about carousal and carousel, but this is a different story. Carouse alone is a tough customer.

Image credits: Featured image & (1) “Glasses, sparkling wine” by Holger Detje, Public Domain via Pixabay (2) “Beer” by Alexandra, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Soldiers playing dice in a tavern” by Adriaen Brouwer, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Silhouettes” by skeeze, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “Mud in your eye.” Among the many speculations as to its origin, some involve World War One trenches. But that can be eliminated because the phrase appears in 1911 and 1912 publications. Example: The Smart Set [NY], March, 1912, page 138, [as a toast] “That’s right, old man–here’s mud in your eye an’ a quick trip back to Texas.”
    https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b3874437;view=1up;seq=712

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *