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Q From Richard Hillman: I can't find the etymology of tussie-mussie anywhere! Can you help?

A This ignorant linguaphile’s first thought was “what in the name of everything wonderful is a ‘tussie mussie’?” A visit to the Web site of the Royal Horticultural Society sorted that out: “Tussie-mussies are posies assembled from a carefully chosen selection of flowers and herbs, usually to convey a specific message.” Then I went to my dictionaries: “Origin unknown”.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a little more forthcoming. It says that it may be a rhyming reduplicated form of tussy. This may in turn have come from an unrecorded word tus or tusse in the sense of a nosegay or garland of flowers. So its history is indeed poorly understood and “origin unknown” is a pretty good summary.

The word has gone through lots of different forms, suggesting that its early users were as uncertain about its antecedents as we are today. Its first recorded appearance was in about 1440, when it was written as tusmose. In later centuries the spelling settled down to tuzzy-muzzy.

By the end of the seventeenth century it seems to have disappeared from the standard language. The reason for this may lie in an entry in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, dated 1811, which says “TUZZY-MUZZY. The monosyllable.” Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it was then a slang term for the vagina, so that “the monosyllable” was presumably cunt. William Dugdale was a famous publisher of porn in London (the Dictionary of National Biography says of him, ”During the 1840s he made his name as the largest publisher of obscene titles in England, a position unchallenged for over twenty years.”) One of his titles was a song book entitled The Tuzzymuzzy Songster.

The term was reintroduced around the 1940s in its original sense of a nosegay by someone who was ignorant of its by then long-defunct slang associations. In the process the spelling was changed to tussie-mussie. The first modern case I can find is in the rules for a flower show in Dixon, Illinois, in September 1947.

Altogether a most interesting word. Thanks for giving me the chance to write about it, even though I can’t answer your question!

Page created 8 Jul. 2006

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Last modified: 8 July 2006.