In the course of writing some copy about pleasantly scented household cleaning supplies — really — I wanted to check the exact meaning of nosegay. I remember reading the word in an American Heritage kids’ book that had a picture spread called “A Nosegay of Valentines.” When I was 8 or so — the same era when I thought misled was pronounced “mize-elled” — I got the sense that a nosegay was a collection of anything fancy. Decades later, when I had occasion to hunt for it in the dictionary, I got the more precise sense that it’s a bunch of flowers.
So back to the cleaning supplies. They smell good. They’re a bunch of things. Would nosegay work (the client I’m writing for sometimes seems to like obscure words)? Looking it up at the American Heritage Dictionary site brought back a short list of words: nosegay, naturally; bouquetier, a container for holding a nosegay; and … tussie-mussie:
NOUN: 1. A small bouquet of flowers; a nosegay. 2. A cone-shaped holder for such a bouquet.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English tussemose, perhaps reduplication of *tusse.
I don’t know from tussie-mussie. I can swear, almost, that I haven’t stumbled across it in my 19,000-plus days as me. I figured this must be like one of those obscure Scrabble words, like qanat or zobo, that we Standard American English people never use except when we’re looking for a killer play for a Q or a Z.
But no: the world of tussie-mussie is alive and well. The holders are all over eBay. And the Royal Horticultural Society posts a relatively recent explainer on the art and meaning of the tussie-mussie, complete with a sort of guide to different messages you can send through flowers (here’s a special George W. Bush tussie-mussie: tansy, columbine, rocket, and bugloss).