Many people like to go on a health kick for the beginning of the year. I prefer to give it a head start on New Year’s Eve – with a bit of fizzy-o-therapy.

Well, what? Who doesn’t like a little bit of pop and bang in life from time to time? If your life lacks fizz (as in Margaret Fishback’s poem “Blackout,” which I link to because it’s too short to quote from), you may well be justified in adding some. And, providing that you consume alcohol at all, what better way to bring some sparkle to the start of a new year than some sparkling wine? (Don’t say fireworks. A properly opened* bottle of champagne or other vin pétillant would never frighten a dog or set off a car alarm.)

I do not call all wine that spits and hisses champagne. I find it useful to surrender to the insistence of those in the eponymous region to maintain the sanctity of their trademark. Besides, there is much variety in frothy wines – sekt, cava, prosecco, and various others made by the traditional method or the “Charmat” (a.k.a. “bicycle pump”) method. But when I do want to refer to them all as a type, I most often call them fizzy – or, for short, fizz.

Not that fizz is a shortening of fizzy; the derivation goes the other way. The adjective fizzy was formed from fizz by the mid-1800s, and was used as a noun by the late 1800s. The noun fizz existed by the mid-1700s, and it in turn was formed from the verb fizz, which had come to us by the late 1600s – it’s imitative: onomatopoeia. Hold up a glass of Veuve Clicquot or Coca-Cola (or any of many other things, including some that actually existed in the 1600s) and listen to it and you will hear a sound that, if we’re being honest, is more like “ffff” or “shshsh” or “khkhkh,” but could plausibly be described with “fizz.”

It could, I suppose, also be described as being a little like flatulence. French allows that option: along with vin mousseux, a standard term for sparkling wine is vin pétillant, and pétillant derives from péter, a verb meaning ‘fart’ (it’s also the source of petard, q.v.). But if we called it farty wine, it would… fizzle.

Speaking of which. You would expect fizzle to be formed from fizz plus the suffix -le (as seen on sparkle, twinkle, and other verbs describing repeating or continuing action). On going to look it up, you would therefore be surprised to see that fizzle was around more than a century before fizz. Does that mean that fizz was backformed from it? There’s no evidence to support that (though we don’t know that there was no influence). But since fizzle plainly has the -le suffix, what was the root? It was fise, an alteration of fist, but not as in what you make with your hand; no, as in what you – or your dog – may make somewhere near the tail. It’s pronounced like “feist” (rhyming with heist), but by the time it got to fizzle the i shortened. 

So, yes, fizzle first referred to breaking wind – but surreptitiously, not loudly. Eventually (in the 1800s) it came to refer to failing: sputtering out like a damp squib.

Which is also a thing you do not want your year to do, especially not when it’s so new. Better to add some levity, some froth and sparkle, some fizz. Even if the price can be a bit steep… as Hilaire Belloc observed more than 120 years ago in The Modern Traveller:

And yet I really must complain
About the Company’s Champagne!
This most expensive kind of wine
In England is a matter
Of pride or habit when we dine
(Presumably the latter).
Beneath an equatorial sky
You must consume it or you die;
And stern indomitable men
Have told me, time and time again,
“The nuisance of the tropics is
The sheer necessity of fizz.”
Consider then the carelessness—
The lack of polish and address,
The villainy in short,
Of serving what explorers think
To be a necessary drink
In bottles holding something less
Than one Imperial quart,
And costing quite a shilling more
Than many grocers charge ashore.

A standard bottle of fizz is still just a pint and a half in size, and the good stuff is somewhat more per bottle than most of us would think to spend on non-fizzy wine of equal quality. But on the other hand, there are quite a few perfectly decent fizzies out there that cost no more than an acceptable bottle of dinner red. And they are quite suitable for adding levity!

*Oh, yes, there is that matter of proper opening. If you fire off the cork with a bang, it may be fun but you will almost surely waste some wine and make a mess, and you may break something or injure someone. The better way is to keep a grip on the cork and let it come out gradually, with a little sound like, um, a surreptitious fart. The point of the fizz is the drinking, not the wasting. We are not race car drivers, nor ships a-launching.

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