Is it time to retire “tout”? So-and-So touts this, touts that, we read and hear it all the time. But does it always mean “recommend,” as the guy hanging around the race track recommends a pony, and with the seamy side of life, if not sleaze, that this usage implies?
Maybe ironically. We do live in an Age of Irony, where double entendre has become the lingua franca and you have to be on your toes whenever anyone says anything. (Not anyone. Transparent and forthright people we still have among us.)
But “tout”? TheFreeDictionary.com has this:
v. intr. 1. To solicit customers, votes, or patronage, especially in a brazen way. 2. To obtain and deal in information on racehorses.
Brazen. That’s good. And racehorses, yes. In the last half of the 14th century, before my time, there was the middle English tuten, to look out, peer, probably akin to the Old English tōtian to peep out, says Dictionary.com, which has the current meaning, “to provide information on (a horse) running in a particular race, especially for a fee,” and close to that, “to spy on (a horse in training) in order to gain information for the purpose of betting.” Also simply “to watch or spy on.”
So it goes with thousands of words. Poke around in their genealogies and you find history. Long time ago as a teacher, I had my high school frosh buy 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary or another such vocabulary-helper in paperback and instituted a daily quiz on its contents. I have since thought that whole subjects could be taught entirely with vocabulary lessons, that is, definitions. Define the world and you own it, at least conceptually, which is all you can expect from classroom learning.
As for our daily, over-exposed meaning of “tout,” Dictionary.com has “to describe or advertise boastfully; publicize or promote; praise extravagantly: [as in] ‘a highly touted nightclub.’”
Is it used a lot?
Search Chi Trib online on this day, and you get 262 occurrences (since 1999), from an eye cream in yesterday’s paper that “slips on smoothly and absorbs immediately. . .” and “touts the ingredient VitaNiacin” — wrong: the advertiser does the touting, not the eye cream, which can’t tout anything, no matter how smoothly it slips on and how immediately it is absorbed. Nor does it do the absorbing, unless you mean your epidermis is pulled up by this skin-eating salve. As for the advertiser, he touts on the basis of inside information gotten by spying on the manufacturing process . . .
a travel book chapter on Los Angeles, in the paper three days ago, that “touts not its fly-by-night, forever-young culture but rather its historic buildings and the revitalization of its old and formerly abandoned neighborhoods” — a now-standard editorial use that denudes the word of nuance and history and color. . . .
and on and on 260 instances later, to
an April, 1999 feature about finding a real estate agent: “While some agents tout their extra training, others say it’s not that important.”
Newspaper and copy writers work under the gun and search for the word that comes quickest to mind. They find “tout,” ready and willing to serve. But he’s tired. Give him a rest. Retire him (or her, if you insist: anything but the unutterably squeamish “them.”) Please.