One of my early encounters with Shakespeare was sitting down and trying to read the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew. I was young enough that I didn’t know what the heck a shrew was, so you can imagine my state of comprehension when I read the first words: “I’ll feeze you, in faith.”
Feeze. Well, that beat me. I was fazed.
Right on both counts, in fact. I’ll feeze you at that time could mean “I’ll beat you”; it could also mean more generally “I’ll settle your hash.” Before that, it meant “frighten”; before that, “impel, drive”. It’s a good old Germanic word, attested all the way back to the 9th century.
And feeze appeared in the American dialect, by the 19th century, as faze, meaning “disturb” or “discompose”. We generally use it now in the negative sense: “It didn’t faze him”; “He was unfazed.” By a long measure the most common morpheme immediately preceding faze is n’t – as in didn’t, wasn’t, doesn’t, and so on. Sometimes between the negative and faze will come seem to or seems to: “Nothing seems to faze him” – or, more guardedly, “Hardly anything seems to faze him.”
However, this phrasing is often fazed by misconjecture that puts it out of phase, or should I say puts phase into it. Many people think that this faze is phase (and undoubtedly at least a few think faze is an uneducated misspelling of phase). But phase actually comes from Greek (the ph is a bit of a clue), from phasis meaning “phase of the moon” or, more generally, “appearance”, in turn derived from the verb phanein “show, cause to appear”, which is the root of epiphany as well.
And indeed I wouldn’t mind if those who rendered faze as phase had an epiphany and phased out their misconstrual. But it is true that faze can look, ironically, a little foreign. It puts me in mind of Fhazisi, a Georgian (as in the Caucasus) singing group; it also tickles my sense a little as like a dialectal Italian word, with a distinct taste of Fazi Battaglia, an Italian winemaker best known for their green amphora-shaped bottles of verdicchio. It does have a taste of fuzz, and even, it occurs, slightly of furze (which means “gorse”, of course). It has the hotness of blaze and (in a looser burn sense) raze. But mainly it has that electric razor buzz [z] – and that static hiss [f].
Funny, isn’t it, how a simple voicing of the fricative – [z] rather than [s] – and a difference between a curved c and an angular z can make two words seem so different. Perhaps it’s because when you’re fazed you can lose face. You can be tamed, like a shrew: left to wheeze and perhaps to freeze. And that’s nothing to shake a spear at.
Thanks to “Upstater,” a commenter on this blog, for suggesting faze.