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.

  • 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, 2012 at 21:27

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 21:29
  • 1
    @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, 2012 at 22:26
  • @MT_Head, Dictionary.com also says dowse can be an alternate spelling of douse.
    – Marthaª
    May 2, 2012 at 22:45
  • 2
    @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, 2012 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.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 23:02

I've operated a spot lamp in theaters a number of times here on the California side of whatever pond you choose, and if you want to extinguish the light, you "douse" it using the chopper blades, which are operated by a lever, or stick, if you will.

Any reference manual for a spot lamp will use the term "douse" to mean to dim or fully extinguish the light from the lamp.

Here's an example for a well-known brand of spot lamp...


I've always thought that the action of dousing a light, as well as the searching for water variant "dowse", referred to the actual act of dipping a stick 'down', either to put out the flame at the end of a torch, or moving a lever to throw a cover over the spotlamp beam, or twitching a stick as you stumble around searching for water or minerals.

The last time I saw anyone 'dowse' for something, it was a septic tank repair man at my in-law's house in the mountains of Southern California. He was unable to locate the main drain line and cap over the tank precisely, and I kept sighting along the six inches or so of drain line that was just visible above ground near the house, pointing off to the north and down the hill where he was dowsing, and I kept telling him "just dig along this line" and pointing, and that's how he finally found the tank.

It was interesting to watch him wander around the property with two bent wires rolling between his fingers, but I saved him (and my in-laws) at least a half-hour just using my knowledge that pipes are often manufactured as straight tubes. : )


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

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.