Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

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patrick herring
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Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by patrick herring »

I've discovered a source for origin of the word dowsing. It turns out it was schlag-ruthe - striking rod - in Middle German miners which was duschen in Middle English in 16th century Cornwall. This came from Sir William Barrett's book Psychical Research in 1911, also the Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition. I didn't find duschen here so I thought it worth mentioning.

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by Helen-Healing »

Good work. It's also often spelt dousing.

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by patrick herring »

Good work. It's also often spelt dousing.
Thanks :) . I haven't come across that spelling, though John Locke spelt it deusing in 1691, and Thomas de Quincey wrote jowser in the early 19th century. Turns out I've just met someone who knows Old English etc so I'll see if she can say how duschen is pronounced.

I should have said I got this into the wikipedia dowsing page in the the History section. The refs to the Barrett book and Britannica entry are online and his whole chapter is worth a read. There's also a quote of Barrett's quote of an account of the first water dowse. I hope to do some work on that whole page, eventually.

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by simonwheeler »

I have a copy of "The Divining Rod" by Sir William Barrett and Theodore Besterman published by Methuen in 1926. In the introduction (page xxii) he writes about the name "the divining rod" ...

"being confused with such ancient divinatory practices as Belomancy, Xylomancy, and especially with Rhabdomancy. But there is of course no connexion between these things and the use of the divining rod. It will therefore be convenient to replace that term with the old and locally well-established words dowsing-rod and dowser".

At this point there is a footnote that reads:

"According to the best authorities the origin and derivation of the words are unknown."

I was going to scan the page and upload a copy here but the book is a hardback and I don't want to damage it by doing so...it doesn't want to bend that much to lie flat!
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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by patrick herring »

At this point there is a footnote that reads:

"According to the best authorities the origin and derivation of the words are unknown."
Yes that's odd. The 1911 Britannica entry is at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Enc ... nd_Dowsing
and reads "DOWSER and DOWSING (from the Cornish “dowse,” M.E. duschen, to strike or fall), one who uses, or the art of using, the dowsing-rod (called “deusing-rod” by John Locke in 1691), or “striking-rod” or divining-rod, for discovering subterranean minerals or water. (See Divining-Rod.)"

The Barrett book is at https://archive.org/stream/psychicalres ... 5/mode/2up and reads at p170
"Now, the colloquial German word for the rod was then schlag-ruthe or striking-rod; this, translated into the Middle English became the duschan or striking rod, and finally 'deusing or dowsing rod'". I've mentioned the slight discrepancy between duschen and duschan but I don't understand how he forgot it all between 1911 and 1926, particularly as the meaning of duschen is in the Middle English dictionary and is correct (as = strike) and beyond question. He did die in 1925 and the authorship was completed by Besterman. Maybe that accounts for the omission. There are other papers in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research which might shed some light.

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by Geoff Stuttaford »

I have just come across what Patrick Herring wrote “I've discovered a source for origin of the word dowsing. It turns out it was…….. duschen in Middle English in 16th century Cornwall. “

My 1978 Cornish dictionary does not mention the word “dowsing” nor the word “duschen”, but it seems to me that, having spent the war years at school in Cornwall and being half Cornish myself, that the way a Cornishman would pronounce “duschen” would be very similar to the English word “dowsing, especially to a foreigner (anyone from east of the River Tamar) listening to a Cornishman saying the word. I understand that there were several German dowsers in the UK during the time of Elizabeth 1 but I don’t know whether any of them went to Cornwall.


The word “duschen” could be a lot older than the 16th century because Cornwall was well known in the Med and elsewhere for its tin products BCE, particularly by the Phoncians so Cornish dowsers could have been employed finding deposits of minerals near the surface, or more probably in streams, rather than having to dig down for it as in the 19th century. A similar method, using water power to extract the ore, , was used by my grandfather in the first half of the 20th century.
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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by Helen-Healing »

Interestingly, the word "duchar" in Spanish relates to water, but means to shower!
Also "duschen" in German means to take a shower. So all related to water!

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

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Interestingly, the word "duchar" in Spanish relates to water, but means to shower!
Also "duschen" in German means to take a shower. So all related to water!
Although the original use was by 16th century Cornish miners in translating German miners. Maybe they were thinking ahead :)

Googling around you get snatches of what William Barrett wrote before his 1911 book. It seems the support for his original 1911 claim that dowse and strike are synonyms and that the German term was strike was basically linguistic archaeology. That's works for me but it may not be acceptable for academic circles generally, and not in the 1920s. That might explain the denial in his 1926 book, which was co-authored. A thing that is missing is an example of 16th century German miners referring unambiguously to a dowsing rod as a schlag ruthe. Barrett states that without a reference. Scholars at the time wrote in Latin, which is no good for this. Schlag does Google in old German dictionaries but I don't speak German enough to know if there is a connection to mining.

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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by Geoff Stuttaford »

Patrick’s mention of the words “dowse and strike” makes me think what happened when Cornish miners looked for tin ore. They probably dowsed whether small rocks or stones on the surface contained tin ore, removed them and extracted the ore by striking then with some kind of iron tool to reduce the rock to very small fragments, then washing the proceeds, in a stream, over gently sloping wooden planks, allowing gravity to deposit the ore on the planks because of its weight. Then it was scraped off and subsequently smelted. I had several relatives engaged in this process using more modern apparatus.

So, dowse and strike could be descriptive of the means of extracting the ore. Or is that too fanciful ?
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Re: Re-discovery of the origin of the word dowsing

Post by patrick herring »

They probably dowsed whether small rocks or stones on the surface contained tin ore, removed them and extracted the ore by striking then with some kind of iron tool to reduce the rock to very small fragments
Maybe :) My quote for dowse/strike is from Christopher Bird's The Divining Hand, page 21 - "About a hundred feet up from the pond's edge, the forked stick in Kidd's hands snapped down violently. Kidd took a wooden peg from his pocket and drove it into the ground between his feet to mark what he called a "vein of water"
i.e. "striking" is how dowsing looks.
My 1978 Cornish dictionary does not mention the word “dowsing” nor the word “duschen”, but it seems to me that, having spent the war years at school in Cornwall and being half Cornish myself, that the way a Cornishman would pronounce “duschen” would be very similar to the English word “dowsing, especially to a foreigner (anyone from east of the River Tamar) listening to a Cornishman saying the word. I understand that there were several German dowsers in the UK during the time of Elizabeth 1 but I don’t know whether any of them went to Cornwall.
Could you say what duschen would sound like by a Cornish speaker? This would be most interesting.

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