What does you does if what you has makes you blasé, gives you the blahs? Give it a touch of class, of jazz, of razzle-dazzle, razzmatazz! Make it fizz, not fizzle; make your biz buzz and your fuzz sizzle – put a shot of booze in your jacuzzi! Don’t let your pizza make you zzzz… give it some pizzazz! Huzzah! (Just be careful not to make a shemozzle.)

Oh, there was a sort of minor vogue in the early 20th century for words with that extra zing of zz. Who’s to know if the lightning shape of the z’s (and the buzz of their sound) played on the latest big thing of a century ago, electricity? No doubt even if that was a factor there’s more to it, of course. Razzle-dazzle was an early entry, showing up in 1885 on the basis of dazzle, which comes from daze; by 1900 we have razzmatazz, and jazz shows up by the teens. Indeed, pizzazz is a bit of a latecomer, having buzzed out of the sizzling brains at the Harvard Lampoon in or around 1937 (they just made it up!). Harper’s Bazaar (a sort of minor Vogue) helped spread it – of course it did; pizzazz is just what a magazine named bazaar would like, isn’t it?

Here’s a quote that gives you the feel, from Harper’s Bazaar in 1937: “Pizazz, to quote the editor of the Harvard Lampoon, is an indefinable dynamic quality, the je ne sais quoi of function; as for instance, adding Scotch puts pizazz into a drink. Certain clothes have it, too.” Note that the spelling was originally pizazz, one less z. The word was also written as bizzazz or bezazz for a time by some people. The connection with biz gives it a busy show-biz air, and the upward stem of the b is like a flagpole or a cat’s perky tail. But the b bumbles a bit in the sound, lacks an edge, seems maybe a bit goofy (I get an echo of Sheldon’s bazinga from Big Bang Theory); the p is crisp, pops like a flashbulb – perhaps from paparazzi as you parade your pizzazz on the red carpet.

2 responses to “pizzazz

  1. When I heard this quotation, in a famous context, from the Talmud [Shabbos 88a] ‘Ama peziza’ – explained as ‘impulsive, [too] quick off the mark’, I was intrigued and wondered if it might have arrived in English via Yiddish from this source. Although American online dictionaries say its source is ‘obscure’, my print Chambers Dictionary has ‘[Onomatopoeic coinage by Diana Vreeland, US fashion editor, (c. 1903-89)]’ Her aristocratic background may apparently be interspersed with or a substitute for Jewish antecedents. In any case she lived for years in New York, which is nearly as good. Can you add anything to this speculation?

    • I’m always leery of interlinguistic sound coincidences, of which there are many easily found ones of no etymological significance, but of course they’re usually worth checking out to see if there actually is something there. Interesting that Chambers credits it to Vreeland given that Harper’s Bazaar was crediting the Harvard Lampoon with its origin. Either way, a Jewish origin or influence is not impossible, but some kind of “smoking gun” would be nice, or at least a few extra helpings of circumstantial evidence. Maybe there’s something hiding in the Harvard Lampoon archives that would tell all…

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