What is it that makes a word like swizzle stick in your mind – and in the vocabulary? What ingredients make it such a tropical cocktail of tastes and associations? Is there an umbrella term for such words? Is English stir-crazy, that it likes to stir crazy words of this kind into the liquor of our tongue?

It’s an electric word to look at, with all those angles: wizzl all lines and sharp points, and the only curves at the ends s e – and the s a softened view of a z, or the z’s a hardened and distorted view of the s, as though reflected in ice cubes. Out of it all one letter projects, l, like that little stick in your cocktail… the swizzle stick, of course (I add the explanation for the non-drinkers).

This word mixes the juice of a swi onset – as in swish, swing, swirl, swivel, words with a certain sway or swoop, that fluid motion – with the spirit of an izzle ending that can suggest busy activity: drizzle, fizzle, frizzle, sizzle, twizzle; there are also the tones of dazzle, puzzle, frazzle, nozzle, and especially guzzle and sozzle. Some come via a Latin-derived iller ending in French; some with the frequentative le suffix in English; some through onomatopoeia; and some evidently by imitation of other words. “What shall I toss in here? Oh, yeah, let’s try a shot of that!” This word is of that last sort and has been with us for a tidy two centuries.

So what is swizzle? Is a swizzle stick a stick you swizzle with? No, it’s a stick you stick in your swizzle. Swizzle is that with which you wet your whistle – it’s booze, especially a mixed drink. If you’d stick a swizzle stick in it, it qualifies, though it may have been a bit more specific at first: Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Dictionary, as opposed to a random dictionary in my house) says “a tall drink, originating in Barbados, composed of full-flavored West Indian rum, lime juice, crushed ice, and sugar: typically served with a swizzle stick.”

In other words, like a caipirinha but with dark rum. The sort of muddled tipple you’d like to guzzle when it’s sweltering out and you’re sweating and sizzling. Skip the little umbrella, and who cares about the frizzle frazzle on the swizzle stick: just sit in your swivel chair and tip this booze into your muzzle until you’re sozzled and dozing and all will be swell.

5 responses to “swizzle

  1. In British English, ‘swizzle’ also means deception, cheating, fraud. It is most commonly shortened to ‘swizz’. ‘What a swizz!’ you would exclaim on finding that your bag of apples from the market has several rotten ones at the bottom.

    The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English suggests that ‘swizzle’ in the sense of a drink is derived from the 18th century word ‘switchel’, a drink of molasses and water.

    I remember that, at old-fashioned cocktail parties of a rather grand type, wooden swizzle sticks were provided which had a cylindrical stem and a business end about half an inch in diameter which was grooved vertically, so that spinning the handle between finger and thumb would stir up the froth in a fizzy drink. It was explained to me that it was for taking the fizz out of champagne. I am not sure why one would want to do such a sad thing, but it may be that the well brought-up ladies who went to these events would not want to be caught belching.

    An immense swizzle stick, 15 inches long — see
    — is used in the West Indies for homogenising thick soups such as calalloo, or dhal.

    • The OED suggests that swizzle and switchel may be related, but doesn’t give a solid indication of direction, and doesn’t have any suggestion for the etymology of switchel other than “compare swizzle.”

      As to taking the fizz out of champagne, it happens that Queen Victoria was fond of champagne but not fond of belching, so she insisted on its being served in broad, flat glasses (those champagne coupes that some people still think are the right glass to serve it in – actually, flutes, the tall, thin ones, are) so it would lose most of its fizz. So your surmise seems good. But nearly-flat champagne sure loses a lot of its… well… its sparkle!

  2. I was happy to read your explanation of the “why” of flat champagne glasses; I always thought they were first created by Yahoos who didn’t understand the result of the surface-to-air ratio and its effect on petillant wine. Or is that a false glassology?

  3. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s