or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


I ran across the most delightful error on a web page today: "lowsy". It's part of a small but tangled thicket of words that bear inspecting.

The correct spelling, "lousy", is based on the word "louse". What baffled me about the misspelling, charming though it is, is that the word "low" is never, ever pronounced to match the first syllable in "lousy": whether noun ("Well, that's a new low"), verb ("The cattle are lowing"), or adjective ("How low can you go?"), it is invariably pronounced with a long "o". How could the writer have come up with that thoroughly illogical misspelling?

Which brings me to the second word in the thicket, "blowzy". For a long time, having read but not heard it, I thought that it was pronounced "blow-zee" to rhyme with "go see", but in fact it rhymes with "lousy". (I wish it were spelled "blousy", which would reveal its pronunciation, but that word exists solely as the adjectival form of the noun or verb "blouse". It does sometimes take an "s"--"blowsy"--but never a "u". "Blowzy" comes from the obsolete "blowze", a beggar-woman.) The misspelling "lowsy" would make more sense if the writer had been thinking of "blowsy", but someone who doesn't know how to spell "lousy" is unlikely to know how "blowsy" is spelled, either.

And another word: "frowzy". Where did it come from? It is a portmanteau word? It looks like one: "frumpy" plus "blowzy". Even the OED doesn't know; maybe it's related to "frowsty", or maybe not--and in any case, it doesn't know where "frowsty" came from, either.

And one last word: "drowsy". Why ever not "drowzy"? You'd think that as words were being set down on paper, a more logical system might have arisen--words ending in "-ouse", with their hard "s" sound (grouse, house, mouse, louse, souse) would keep the sound and the "s" on being converted into adjectives, and words ending in "-owse", having a "z" sound (drowse, dowse, browse), would similarly take a "z". It didn't happen; we ended up with a jumble of sounds and letters. The hard "s" of "louse" is padded into a soft "s" in "lousy" while "mousy" retains its hardness. This is why people have such trouble learning English: the verbs are a snap, but the spelling is a nightmare.

And full circle back to "lousy". I love this instance of evolution in action--the way "crawling with lice" came to mean something unpleasant but insect-free ("I feel lousy"). An identical transformation happened with "maggoty", literally "infested with maggots". When I was growing up in Newfoundland, "maggoty" was a synonym for "begrimed": "Go wash your hands--they're maggoty!" I'm surprised that there's no mention of this usage in the generally thorough and always fascinating Dictionary of Newfoundland English; it was a common usage at the time, which wasn't all that long ago.


Blogger Frank said...

Just want to say how much I like the new blog. You were always a font of wisdom in the English Language Usage thread on FT and you continue to be so here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005 12:17:00 AM  

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