The Grammarphobia Blog

Geezers and geysers

Q: I’m revisiting season one of Rumpole and I’m up to “Rumpole and the Married Lady.” Leo McKern has just pronounced “geyser,” the British term for a water heater, as “geezer.” I’m probably in my cups or I wouldn’t be asking this, but are the two terms related?

A: In Britain, the words “geyser” and “geezer” are commonly pronounced alike, as you noticed in Rumpole of the Bailey. However, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no etymological connection.

In the US, “geyser” is pronounced GUY-zer and has one meaning, a bubbling hot spring that erupts periodically.

But in British English, it has two meanings; a “geyser” can be a hot spring or a water heater. And for both senses of the word, most British speakers rhyme it with “geezer.”

You can click the loudspeaker icons at two dictionary websites to hear the typical British and American pronunciations.

In its entry for “geyser,” Oxford Dictionaries online has these definitions: (1) “A hot spring in which water intermittently boils, sending a tall column of water and steam into the air,” or any such “jet or stream of liquid”; (2) “British: A gas-fired water heater through which water flows as it is rapidly heated.”

The noun used in sense #1 was first recorded in travel writing from the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded:

“Among the hot springs in Iceland, several of which bear the name of geyser, there are none that can be compared with that which I am going to describe.” (From Letters on Iceland, a 1780 translation of a work by the Swedish naturalist Uno von Troil.)

The use of the noun in sense #2 was first recorded in the late 19th century. This is the first OED citation:

“The instantaneous water heater; or Maughan’s Patent Geyser … so constructed that any quantity of hot water can be drawn from it with the utmost facility.” (From an advertisement in an 1878 issue of the British journal Gas Engineer.)

Two Oxford citations from the 1920s—one American and the other British—shed some light on the pronunciation of the water heater:

“The aristocratic landlady was telling me of the advantage of her own particular geezer. … I moved closer to descry the lettering on the cylinder, and lo! it was a geyser. I suppose the word is universally mispronounced over here because they have not been brought up in a geyser country” (from An American’s London, by Louise Closser Hale, 1920).

“The mechanical device for heating bath-water made geyser a household word, and though the introducers gave it the vowel of grey, the pronunciation as in key gained ground” (from the Society for Pure English Tract No. XXXII, 1929).

As for its etymology, “geyser” comes from the Icelandic Geysir, the proper name of a hot spring in southwest Iceland. The word literally means “gusher,” the OED explains, and is related to the Old Norse verb geysa (to gush).

Going back even further, etymologists point to an ancestral Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu– (to pour), according toThe American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Interestingly, the dictionary’s editor, Calvert Watkins, says gheu– may be the source of our word “god.”

The ancient root, he explains, played an important role in prehistoric religious terminology, since gheu– implied the pouring of a libation or a liquid sacrifice, as well as the heaping of earth on a burial mound.

Consequently, Watkins says, gheu– may have led to gudam, the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic term for “god.”

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to the noun “geezer,” which is pronounced similarly in British and American English. (The only difference is in the treatment of the “r.”)

The word, which the OED dates from the late 19th century, has different meanings in the US and the UK.

The definition of “geezer” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is typical of the meaning in US dictionaries: “An old person, especially an eccentric old man.” It’s generally described as humorous or disparaging.

But most standard British dictionaries define a “geezer” as simply a “man,” and the word is used casually much like “guy” or “bloke.”

The OED, a historical dictionary based on etymological evidence, says “geezer” is a ” term of derision applied esp. to men, usually but not necessarily elderly; a chap, fellow.” However, the definition hasn’t been fully updated since 1898.

The first example given in the OED has the phrase twice: “If we wake up the old geezers we shall get notice to quit without compensation” … “the two old geezers, as Sandy styled the landlord and his wife.”

(The lines are from an actor’s memoir, The Truth About the Stage, published in 1885 under the pseudonym Corin. Oxford mistakenly omits the “old” in the second quotation; we’ve restored it here.)

The earliest American example we’ve found is from the Oct. 18, 1889, issue of Tobacco, a weekly trade journal: “J. H. Coyne, a member of the Chicago Press Club, is responsible for the following:  ‘There was an old Geezer, / And he had a wooden leg, / And he never had Te Baky, / Eksep wot ’e kud beg.’ ”

As we said, the words “geyser” and “geezer” aren’t related. “Geezer” is thought to be adapted from “guiser,” a Scottish word first recorded in the late 1400s and meaning “one who guises” (that is, dresses up or goes in disguise) or “a masquerader, a mummer. ”

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