The Grammarphobia Blog

Was Elizabeth Bennet blowsy?

Q: I just finished reading your dispatch about whether a “blown rose” is in bloom or has finished blooming. I’m surmising the adjective “blowsy” is related to the “past-its-prime” meaning of “blown.” Yes?

A: Etymological bloodhounds have tracked the adjective “blowsy” (sometimes spelled “blowzy”) to the noun “blowze,” but the scent ends there. Here’s what little we know—and what else we suspect—about these two words.

Let’s begin with “blowze,” which originally meant a farmer’s wife when it showed up in the 1500s, but later came to mean a beggar woman or a prostitute, as well as a woman who’s pudgy, red-faced, or scruffy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun (spelled “blouse”) is from Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie, a 1573 book by Thomas Tusser:

“Whiles Gillet his blouse, is a milking thy kow: sir Hew, is a rigging, thy gate or the plow.”

The OED says “blowze” is “of unknown origin,” but adds, “Perhaps originally a cant term”—that is, insider dialect. The dictionary also notes similar “Dutch and Low German words with the sense of ‘red’ or ‘flushed.’ ”

Oxford goes on to say that “some of the uses appear to be influenced” by the verb “blow” used in the sense of moving air. It doesn’t give any details, but this may refer to the inflated face of a chubby woman or the wind-blown hair of one who’s disheveled.

The OED editors apparently don’t believe that the verb “blow” used in the blooming sense influenced the noun “blowze” or the adjective “blowsy.”

However, this plump, ruddy example from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus (1594) caught our attention: “Sweete blowse you are a beautious blossome sure.”

We’ll leave “blowze” with this example of the noun used to mean a beggar woman or prostitute:

“His bonny Blouze or dainty doxie, being commonly a collapsed Tinkers wife, or some high way commodity, taken up upon trust” (from The Whimzies, a 1631 book of character sketches by Richard Brathwait.)

When the adjective “blowsy” showed up in the 1700s, it meant “dishevelled, frowzy, slatternly,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the adjective to describe a man’s messy hair: “Long his beard, and blouzy hair.” (From “The Barber,” circa 1770, a parody by Thomas Erskine in the form of an ode.)

The OED says the adjective soon took on the additional sense of “having a bloated face; red and coarse-complexioned; flushed-looking.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is in a Dec. 8, 1778, letter from Samuel Crisp to the novelist Fanny Burney:

“Thinking herself too ruddy & blowsy, it was her Custom to bleed herself.” (Crisp, a family friend, addresses Burney as “My dear Fannikin.”)

Finally, a disheveled example from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. Here Miss Bingley is abusing Elizabeth Bennet (behind her back, naturally) for walking through muddy fields to see her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield:

“Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

In case you’re wondering, “blowze” and “blowsy” are not related to the “blouse” that one wears, despite similar spellings above. English borrowed “blouse” in the early 1800s from French, where it referred to a blue workman’s shirt.

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