I remember that first day of junior high gym class in Exshaw – or what I thought was gym class. Mister Hogarth (a thirtyish guy who had formerly been a trucker) strode up to the board and wrote FIZED. And underlined it with a tossed-off stroke. We weren’t in gym class! We were in fized!
That might seem really odd to you if you don’t know how it’s pronounced. This is not a typo for fixed – actually it very often is, but not in this case – and it’s not one for fizzed either. It’s not one syllable; it’s two, and the stress is on the second syllable. It’s /fɪ ˈzɛd/.
My developing mind accepted it as yet another new word that one simply associates with a thing. At that age I wasn’t tuned into etymology. This was a thing, this class, and for some undefined reason it was something other than gym. It was this new thing with a name that seemed possibly rakish (as zeds will), possibly fuzzy or frowsy, certainly with a softer and buzzier name than gym, which echoes the sound of balls bouncing on the floor (drop a basketball: “gym, gym, gym, gym gym gym gymgymgym”). It was also vaguely reminiscent of the name of another kid in school (not my grade, the one above, but it was a small school), Peter Fisera (which we said “fizeera”). Ironic, because he was – like me and my brother – an unathletic nerd.
But there it is. New word. You hear it, it has some sort of phonotactic plausibility, it comes from a source that gives you new words every so often, you accept it. You don’t need to be a child to do that. Full-grown adults quite normally accept new words with no real bona fides. Don’t believe me? Read about classiomatic.
So where could this word come from? Does it look Turkish, maybe (would that be fezzed), or, um, I don’t know, Kazakh? How about Jurched? A Dutch family name, maybe (it apparently is one of those too)? And why do we not say it as “fee zed” or “fie zd”? Phonologically, it seems that it’s treated as /fɪz ɛd/, with the /z/ moving to the next syllable just because we automatically do that in actual pronunciation: prefer onset to coda for a consonant.
I imagine many of you have already guessed it. And in fact it didn’t take all that long before I saw the usual spelling of this and figured it out. Usual spelling? It’s this: phys ed. As in short for physical education. Mister Hogarth was making a funny (I assume). Which was likely lost on the whole class.
Well, syllable acronyms are nothing new. Sometimes they don’t even look like syllable acronyms. Near Johannesburg, a place first called South West Township was accordioned down to Soweto, for instance, which really does look like a very African word to those who don’t know better. In New York City, they have SoHo (South of Houston), Tribeca (Triangle below Canal), and assorted others. But the vogue has shifted now towards letter acronyms (as in Brooklyn’s DUMBO, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and indeed phys ed is also called PE.
But really, Anglophones will generally find phys ed (or fized) easier to say than PE, because there’s that glottal stop in between two open vowels in PE, and that always seems like an extra effort – it requires less muscle than the tongue touch in fized, but it involves a full stopping of the breath flow, and with a muscle we may not be as used to using in a significant way.
So. Fized. A name for a class I didn’t look forward to, loaded with team sports and bouncing balls and shouting and ways to get injured. Why couldn’t I just go read more books? I can’t say my interest in it fizzled, because it really wasn’t much there in the first place. (Indeed, my lack of interest has fizzled; I still don’t like team sports, but I love individual sports and am an avid runner.) What I can say is that that word – attested then first, then last for me – has stuck in my mind ever since. First encounters can have lasting effects – as witness the fact that whenever I see a painting by the 18th-century British artist William Hogarth, his name makes me think of… yes, fized.