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Q From Ted Preston, Winnipeg: I have attempted to find the origin of the word mozy as in ‘Well, I guess I’ll mozy along home.’ A Google search shows an overwhelming number of results for a computer program of the same name, but nothing else. I’ve lived in Canada most of my life, and have heard this word used regularly ever since I was a kid. Any clues on this one?

A It’s more commonly spelled as mosey, which wouldn’t, however, have done a lot to aid your Google search. To many British people, it’s a classic word of old-time Westerns — “Well, I’ll just mosey down to the corral”. It means to walk or move in a leisurely manner and is folksy and informal nowadays in North America. A typical usage appears in Peter Jenkins’s A Walk Across America in 1979: “I made plans to walk down to see Governor Wallace, especially since he told anybody who wanted to talk to him to just mosey on down to the capital.”

The experts scratch their heads over the source of this word. It’s possible to trace it back to the 1820s in the eastern states of the USA. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests tentatively that it may be linked to British dialect terms. One is mosy, a variation on mossy, which might be applied to hair or overripe or decayed vegetables or fruit, presumably from their mouldy appearance; it can also be used of a person befuddled through drink or who looks foolish or stupid for any reason. The word survives in Newfoundland English, where it’s used of the sort of weather that one British radio and TV weather forecaster describes as misty and murky. The other candidate is muzz, of obscure origin, which has meant to study hard or intently, to loiter or hang about aimlessly, or to make someone muzzy or confused. The OED is puzzled by yet another possibility, to mose about, from South Worcestershire dialect, recorded only in the English Dialect Dictionary at the end of the nineteenth century, which is glossed as meaning to go about in a dull, stupid manner.

Out of that glorious muddle of meaning, we might guess that there was once a British dialect word, variously spelled and pronounced, one of whose senses is much like that of “mose about”. As so often, there’s a problem. The earliest appearances of mosey suggest to the OED’s editors that it might have meant “to go away quickly or promptly; to make haste”, though the first examples don’t read like that to my eye. If it’s true, then a link with the British dialect words is less likely.

The OED’s entry doesn’t mention another possible source, given in several works, though equally tentatively — that it might be a shortened and altered form of Spanish vamos, let’s go. If so, this would make it a relative of vamoose and would fit with the earliest sense of moving fast. I am told, though, that there are good phonetic reasons why a shift from vamos to mosey is unlikely and the earliest recorded examples — as I have said, from the US east coast — are far from the area of Spanish influence in the 1820s.

Other theories are way out on the margins. Eric Partridge suggested in his Name Into Word in 1950 that it might derive from the slouching manner of itinerant Jewish vendors, so many of whom were named Moses or Mose or Mosey. Others believe that it originated in the name of Moses because of the Biblical flight of the Jews into Egypt and their wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. Neither story survives scrutiny.

Short answer: we can’t be sure where it comes from.

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Page created 05 Apr 2008