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A recent SMS conversation has prompted me to question my use of "dowse", "dowsing", and so on in relation to lighting instruments and projection equipment. I do not remember from where I got this habit, but I do know that I've had it a while.

I looked up "dowse" in Wiktionary, though, and there is no mention whatsoever of anything related to extinguishing or putting out. Merriam-Webster says it's a variant of "douse", though, and Google says that "douse" is a synonym—but Thesaurus.com doesn't even know the word "dowse", and other sites I've looked at make no mention of it in their synonym lists for "douse".

I guess I've confused myself through research at this point. It seems like the more unusual word "dowse" would fit in a theatrical or film production context, where jargon is extremely common (I should know), but I do want to make sure I'm using the word correctly.

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I really wouldn’t put anything into what Wiktionary may or may not say if I were you. For the full answer, you just have to look at (higher-)quality dictionaries; see my answer below. –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 21:27

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Dowsing means divination of underground resources (water, oil, buried treasure, etc.), usually by means of a forked stick. I rarely if ever hear about it here in Los Angeles, but when I lived up in the hills, our neighbor had the reputation of being an excellent "water witcher".

Dowse is given as an alternate spelling of douse (to put out or extinguish, as fire or hope) in several dictionaries, as @tchrist has pointed out - but in 21st-century usage, it is highly unusual.

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By the way - my parents and I had very different reactions to our neighbor's dowsing: my reaction was "what a load of superstitious BS", while their reaction was "that man is playing with Powers Beyond His Control! Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!, etc. etc." Takes all kinds to make a world, no? –  MT_Head May 2 '12 at 20:31
    
Pardon me, but who is it who says that dowse is not a generally accepted alternate spelling of douse? Do you have an actual source you can cite for that assertion, or is it merely your personal opinion? Please see my answer for details and variants. –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 21:29
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@tchrist - In the citations you give for your answer, did you notice the little number "16" - as in "Forms: Also 16 dousse, dowsse, douze, 16– dowse, douce."? That 16 means "attributed circa 1600". If you can find me some published examples from the 20th or 21st century where "dowse" is used to mean anything besides water-witching or someone's last name, I will concede your point. Otherwise not. (Interesting sidenote turned up while I was looking for examples: "dowse", meaning a heavy blow to the face, was attributed {perhaps apocryphally} to a famous brawler whose last name was Dowse.) –  MT_Head May 2 '12 at 22:26
    
@MT_Head, Dictionary.com also says dowse can be an alternate spelling of douse. –  Marthaª May 2 '12 at 22:45
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@tchrist - I'm saying that, despite the fact that "divining for water" is a pretty exotic topic and "extinguishing, soaking, etc" is relatively common, "dowse" still means the former more often than the latter. The significant numbers, I think, are the ratios ("douse":"dowse") of 252:4 for the COCA and 40:2 for BNC. Those numbers are what lead me to call it an uncommon spelling. –  MT_Head May 3 '12 at 0:05

Per the OED, dowse is a variant spelling of both douse verbs. They do not know where the water-seeking verb came from. I’ll give the nouns first.

dowse, n.¹ [a 1627]

Pronunciation: /daʊs/
Forms: Also 16 douze, 16– douce, dowse, 18 douss.
Etymology: < douse v.¹

    A dull heavy blow or stroke.


† douse | dowse, n.² [c 1325 / a 1500]

Etymology: perhaps subst. use of douse, douce adj. sweet.
Obs.

    A sweetheart; a ‘dear’. Also ironical.


douse, v.¹ [1559]

Pronunciation: /daʊs/
Forms: Also 16– dowse, 17 dousse.
Etymology: Of obscure origin: known only from 16th cent. In sense 1, perhaps related to Middle Dutch dossen, or early modern Dutch doesen to beat with force and noise (Kilian): compare also East Frisian dossen to beat, strike, punch, knock, and German dialect dusen, tusen, tausen, etc. to beat, strike, butt (Grimm). Senses 2, 3 may be the same word; compare ‘to strike sail’; sense 4 is more doubtful, and may be distinct. All the senses belong to the lower strata of the language.

  1. trans. To strike, punch, inflict a blow upon.
  2. Naut. To strike (a sail); to lower or slacken suddenly or in haste; to close (a port-hole).
  3. To put off, doff.
  4. To put out, extinguish, dout (a light).
  5. To throw down, table (money): = doss v.¹ 2.
  6. To ‘shut up’, stop, cease.

douse, v.² [1600]

Pronunciation: /daʊs/
Forms: Also 16 dousse, dowsse, douze, 16– dowse, douce.
Etymology: Appears c1600: origin unknown; perhaps onomatopoeic; compare souse. It is of course not impossible that it arose out of douse v.¹, though connection is not obvious.

  1. trans. To plunge vigorously in water, or the like; to immerse with force. Obs.
  2. To throw water over; to water, to drench.
  3. intr. To plunge or be plunged into water.

dowse, v. [1894]

Pronunciation: /daʊz/
Forms: Also dowze, douse.
Etymology: Derivation unknown; apparently a dialect term.

    intr. To use the divining- or dowsing-rod in search of subterraneous supplies of water or mineral veins.

Derivatives
  • dowsing n.
  • dowser n. /ˈdaʊzə(r)/ one who uses the divining-rod, a water-diviner.
  • dowsing-rod n. the rod or twig used by dowsers.

All these entries are from the online 3rd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but also appeared in the 2nd edition from 1989, with an earlier version also appearing in the New English Dictionary (that is, the 1st edition) of 1897.

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I'm getting lost in the OED's abbreviations and formatting conventions. Could you maybe remove the obsolete definitions and the irrelevant pronunciations and derivatives? –  Marthaª May 2 '12 at 22:16
    
Also, I'm wondering if that pesky pond (aka Atlantic ocean) is interfering again: the OED seems to imply that douse is a lower-class version of dout, but every American dictionary I checked, as well as my own experience, says that douse is the current word and dout is obsolete at best. –  Marthaª May 2 '12 at 22:20
    
@Marthaª Thank you for the formatting help. I don’t want to delete anything, because I don’t know that it is not relevant. If you are looking at verb-1, it has a bunch of odd senses to it, including sense 3 meaning doff, sense 4 meaning dout (not a word I use), and sense 5 meaning doss. Those may be red herrings, as it’s the verb-2 that means the immerse in water sense. But one might argue that there should be only one entry with a bunch of senses, or even more than two entries yet with fewer senses. It’s really unclear. Ask me about abbreviations and I’ll explain. –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 23:02

Webster's 1913:

Douse, v. t. [AS. dwæscan. (Skeat.)] To put out; to extinguish. [Slang] To douse the glim." Sir W. Scott.

No such slang meaning is attributed to dowse.

Ngram viewer shows Scott's "douse the glim" in use from 1831 onward: enter image description here

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