Say someone presents you with a pretty little bouquet of flowers. How it pleases the eye and makes the nose happy! You ooh and ahh. Try that now: watch how your lips move when you say “ooh, ahh.” Now do the same with the lips but move the tongue a little different to say “ohh, ehh.” It’s almost like a bouquet itself, isn’t it – not just like the shape of saying the word bouquet but like a bouquet in that it’s narrow in the stems and then it opens up into the blossoms. Now add some nasal in the first part /n/, tie it with a string s and bow g in the middle (wrapping from front to back /zg/), and let it open up and finish it with a shape of a bouquet y: nosegay.

OK, OK, nosegay does not have its origin in the shape of saying it or writing it. It’s as obvious a compound as you can find: nose, that good old nasal buzzing word for your snoot, and gay, a word that has meant many things in its long and variegated history (I’m not being cute here; aside from very old senses meaning “happy”, “bright”, and “showy”, there are senses from four centuries ago meaning “hedonistic” or “uninhibited”, from the 1800s meaning “living as a prostitute”, and from Quakers and Amish since the 1800s meaning “having ceased to adhere to the plain and simple life of the community”, among other related senses) – but it obviously in this sense means “happy” or “delighted” or similar.

And where do you see this word? And how do you receive it when you see it? Doug Linzey, who suggested this word to me, commented that it’s “one of those expressive words you tend to run across only in novels – The Wapshot Chronicle (Cheever) in this case.” I actually have seen it in other places, but I agree that it is uncommon and generally literary. And I’m sure that it isn’t becoming more common – this synonym for posy is more likely seen in poesy, while in real life people get a bunch… or a boutonniere, which they say like “boot in ear”, which is rather different from a gay nose, n’est-ce pas?

One response to “nosegay

  1. For the spirituall inclined, St Francis de Sales recommended Christians take away from their morning prayers a small phrase or word to take out and delight the soul during the day: he called this a spiritual nosegay.

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