William Safire’s column today is neither so idiotic as to require yet another Safire-flogging nor so informative as to be cited for its own sake (it’s a routine investigation into the history of the phrase “tipping point”), but it uses a spelling variant that leapt out at me and sent me running to the dictionaries. In the course of trying to find a replacement for the now overused phrase, he says: “Turning point? Not a lot of bezazz, and it does not express the idea of the straw that breaks the camel’s back…” Bezazz! I knew the word “pizzazz” had variants, as befits such an irrepressibly slangy term, but I hadn’t seen this one. Merriam-Webster gives only “pizazz” as an alternate, while American Heritage allows you to simplify either of the z clusters, but neither offers a version in b-. Then I tried the OED, and bingo: “Also bezaz, bezazz, bizzazz, pazazz, pazzazz, pezazz, pizazz, pizzaz.” Now there’s generosity for you; in fact, I wonder whether there is any entry for which they offer more variants. The curious thing, though, is that all the citations with initial b– seem to be British:

1964 New Statesman 28 Aug. 291/1 A Shakespeare one [sc. exhibition].. with most of its bezazz—pop art, wire sculpture, giant beefeaters—left by the Avon. 1965 Sunday Times (Colour Suppl.) 16 May 12/1 She.. still wears trousers frequently. ‘I don’t really feel happy in bezazz.’ 1968 Daily Tel. 24 Dec. 8/4 Miss [Ginger] Rogers has ‘bezazz’, as was obvious from the number of reporters and photographers clustering round her. But Mr. Marshall.. claimed it should be ‘pezazz’, derived from American TV commercials and meaning something like effervescence.

The last one is particularly interesting, implying as it does a difference between U.K. and U.S. usage. I’m hoping The Discouraging Word will get on the case and turn up further information. (This entry can, by the way, be considered a bookend to a previous one on a rare variant spelling for “flibbertigibbet.”)


  1. I detest Safire most of the time, but I do love the way you slap him around. It’s sort of like watching a very talented boxer dance around a bag. (Bag, Safire….yeah, that sounds about right….)

  2. See now this Wordorigins thread, especially ktschwarz’s update:

    On ADS-L, Fred Shapiro and Ben Zimmer just announced some finds of pizzaz, pizazz, pazaz in the sense “energy, vitality” in the Yale Daily News from 1935, 1936, and 1937, and the Harvard Crimson from Mar. 8, 1937 (slightly after the Harper’s Bazaar ad), all in sports stories, suggesting that it was Ivy League slang at the time.

  3. David Marjanović says

    And no attempt at etymology that I can find. Was the word completely made up?

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