geezer

Rob Tilley mentioned this word this evening. My first reaction was, “Geezer Butler!” Naturally, Rob and our friend Franklin knew who that was.

What? He’s the bassist and main lyricist for Black Sabbath, of course. You didn’t know that?

Oh, get over it. The band named themselves after a Boris Karloff movie. Geezer Butler may have written a lot of dark lyrics, but the guy’s a vegan and a pacifist and doesn’t even use vulgar language.

You find that strange? Maybe that’s why he’s called Geezer. It’s not because he’s 61 years old (62 in July), anyway – he’s been called Geezer since he was young, and 61 isn’t all that old anymore. No, in some British dialects geezer can mean “strange guy” of whatever age or even just a somewhat derisive term for whatever male. So the ee may be not heavy-lidded eyes but merely shifty ones, and the z could be not just the one in wheezer and the euphemistic zoomer (meaning a baby boomer old enough to be looking for a word that pretends they’re youthful) but the one in zany and bizarre. After all, eccentricity and pertinacity may seem the province of the superannuated (males in particular), but they are in fact more widely distributed.

You may have encountered the broader use of geezer in the writing of this or that British novelist – Graham Greene, for instance, or P.G. Wodehouse, who in Right Ho, Jeeves has Bertie Wooster say to a woman, “You are a silly young geezer. And, what’s more, you know it.” In 1965, a writer in the New Statesman used this utterly British sentence: “I have my hands full with his china who is a big geezer of about 14 stone.” (China is Cockney slang, from china plate, rhymes with – and thus means – mate, as in “friend”; British measure weight in stone, with one stone being 14 pounds.)

Geezer comes from guiser, you see. As in mummer. Someone who dresses up in a mask and goes around from house to house looking for drinks. The word traces back through guise to French and Italian and from there back to a Germanic route, a bit of a strange reverse masquerade itself. But that, anyway, is why the g is /g/ as in guy, rather than the first syllable being like geez, also spelled jeez, as it would appear.

And to add to the mummery and flummery is a word for a flume of furious fluid, geyser, which also comes from a (different) Germanic root (related to gush) by way of the Icelandic toponym Geysir. You and I know that it’s pronounced like “guiser”, i.e., “guy zer”, but there are British people who may be heard saying it like “geezer”.

Well, anyway, those Brits are a bunch of odd geezers. Or, on the other hand, maybe we North Americans are, for using the word geezer only to refer to a decrepit buzzard of a senex, prone to cantankerous caning. Geez – I don’t know.

One response to “geezer

  1. Nancy Friedman tweeted me this:
    A propos your “geezer” post: http://t.co/12JZixP and also http://t.co/8n8OiEo

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