Dear WD: My question has to do with the word “tout.” I’ve heard it pronounced both “toot” and rhyming with “out” — which is correct? While we’re at it, where did it come from? — Sandra Goldman, Queens, NY.
The “rhymes with out” pronunciation is correct. The only reason I can think of for the “toot” pronunciation would be confusion on the speaker’s part between “tout” (as in a “highly-touted” product) and “tooting one’s own horn.” Since the most common modern meaning of “tout” is “to promote or praise energetically,” we might say that to “tout” oneself is also to “toot one’s own horn,” but there is no relation between the two words. Among other things, “toot” is what linguists call an “imitative” word, which is just a fancy way of saying that the word arose as an imitation of a sound, just as did “meow” and “woof.”
“Tout,” on the other hand, has a far more roundabout origin. The prehistoric Germanic root of “tout” meant “something that pokes out,” especially “a funnel or spout.” From this rather vague beginning, the word gradually shifted its meaning by the 18th century from “something that pokes out” to mean “someone who pokes into things” — in other words, a spy. A “racing tout” was a spy who surreptitiously observed the training of racehorses in the hope of gleaning valuable information which could then be sold to bookmakers. In many cases, the “tout” and the bookmaker were one and the same, and racetracks were usually rife with platoons of “touts,” each claiming to have inside information on the condition of the horses. Over time, the verb “to tout” came to mean “loudly promoting one’s business or product,” especially in an annoying fashion.
Today’s verb “to tout,” almost always found in the phrase “highly touted,” is an inherently skeptical word — the implication is that the product cannot possibly measure up to its advertisements.