The Grammarphobia Blog

A tussle over tousle?

Q: I looked up the word “tousle” in my dictionary today and was surprised to find that it’s pronounced TAU-zul. I always thought it was TAU-sul. I asked a couple of other people, one American and the other British, and there was no tussle. We all pronounce it TAU-sul. What is your ruling on this?

A: We assume you’re referring to the verb “tousle,” which means to rumple or dishevel. The less common noun refers to a tangled or disheveled mass of something, such as hair.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) list two acceptable pronunciations of the verb: TAU-zul and TAU-sul. (The first syllable rhymes with “now.”)

However, Merriam-Webster’s gives only one pronunciation for the noun: TAU-zul. American Heritage has the same two for verb and noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists only the TAU-zul pronunciation for verb and noun, and it includes “touzle” as well as “tousle” as spellings.

The verb showed up in English in the 15th century, several hundred years before the noun.

In addition to the verb’s usual meaning of to rumple, the OED lists one that’s new to us: “to handle (esp. a woman) rudely or indelicately.”

Check out our books about the English language