Meanings: “Puzzle”

April 23, 2011

As Ellen and Robbie set to work this morning on a jigsaw puzzle Robbie received as an 8th birthday gift, we fell to wondering about the origin of the word “puzzle.”  Words with two “z”s aren’t common in English, but puzzle isn’t alone:  dazzle, muzzle, nuzzle, sizzle.  (Are there any in which the two “z”s aren’t followed by “le”?)

Apparently the verb form is older than the noun form, and the etymology appears to be disputed.  Here’s what the on-line OED offers:

puzzle, v.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈpʌzl/ , U.S. /ˈpəz(ə)l/
Forms:  15–16 pusle, 15–16 puzzell, 15–17 puzzel, 16 pussell, 16 pussle, 16 puzel, 16–17 pussel, 16–17 puzle, 16– puzzle, 18 poozle ; Sc. 17– puzzle, 18– pouzle, 19– pousle. (Show Less)

Etymology:  Origin unknown. Compare puzzle n., which is apparently derived from the verb.

A verb of similar form appears in Old English puslian to pick out, select, apparently related to Dutch peuzelen to fiddle, potter, to pick at one’s food, German regional (Low German) pöseln to toil, especially over painstaking tasks, pusseln to fiddle, busy oneself, German bosseln, †posseln to do a bad or insignificant job, to fudge, to do something painstakingly (1563), Swedish pyssla (1605 as pusla), Danish pusle both in sense ‘to potter about, busy oneself’; however, it is hard to find any clear semantic connection with these words. Perhaps the semantic development may have been from ‘to pick out, select’ to ‘to dither over selecting’ to ‘to dither, be bewildered’, although in the absence of any evidence for the intermediate stage this must remain no more than speculation.

It has alternatively been suggested that the word may be a frequentative formation in -le suffix 3 from pose v.2 with shortening of the stem vowel (for a possible parallel, compare nuzzle v.1 beside nose n.); with the possible semantic development, compare pose v.2 2a. However, if this is the case, the uniformity of the -u- spelling in all of the earliest examples is striking (contrast the formal variety shown by nuzzle v.1), and furthermore shortening of the reflex of Middle English open ō to u is not easily accounted for (which is a problem also encountered in the etymology of nuzzle v.1).

It has also been suggested that an earlier example of (the past participle of) the same verb may be shown by the single attestation of poselet adj. (in which the rhyme is with hoselet, variant of housled, past participle of housel v.); however, the sense in this single example is apparently ‘jostled, pushed’, which would make any connection with the present word seem unlikely on semantic grounds.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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