Gazabo II.

Back in the first year of this blog, I posted about the odd and enjoyable term gazabo, which came to prominence in the 1890s. Having revisited the post, I did a little googling and came across this early discussion of the word, a letter to the editor of The Book Buyer (Vol. XIII No. 12, Jan. 1897, pp. 954-55); it was so long and interesting I thought I’d give it its own post rather than include it as an addendum to the old one.


To the Editor of The Book Buyer

Dear Sir: It has been stated (with what gravity I cannot say) that on the announcement of the coming of Ian Maclaren, people began to form classes in Scotch, with a view to the fuller enjoyment of the order of literature which he represents. If, as I suspect, the movement had its origin with members of the same cult that organized the Browning Clubs, the fact would go to prove not alone our intellectual hospitality, but that craving for novelty which animates the reading public, even the more fastidiously critical. And where else can be found such novelty as in the untamed languages whose literature is mostly oral? I refer to Celt and Gael. In their familiar speech are words whose very sound might make us laugh or weep. Take, for instance, the pathos and pitying passion in the rhythm and cadence of the Celtic lullaby:

    ”Aziu, bye baby, Aziu, Aziu!”

I have seen paragoric-proof infants put to sleep in a few minutes by the magic iterance of those crooning syllables.

One of the most grotesque words in any language is “gazabo.” Familiar as it is in daily converse among Milesian people, it enjoys an indefiniteness of definition similar to that encountered in the word “Shaugraun,” which, in the title of one of the most popular of plays, so long piqued curiosity as to its meaning. In vain has “gazabo” been hunted for in the printed page. So far as I know there is but one instance of its appearance. Dear Peggy O’Dowd, the one woman in the British Army ready for Waterloo — Britain’s Maid of Saragossa, so to speak — uses the word some days previous to that martial occasion, but we are not enlightened as to its signification. Possibly, the gifted author of “Vanity Fair” was himself in doubt, rare as were the humors that escaped him.

There are words — usually compound — which have a fractured effect, like “skedaddle,” whose halting prosody seems to me analogous to the lop-sided walk of a circus clown. No art of elocution can invest with dignity that quaint expression. It is funny, and nothing else. “Gazabo,” on the other hand, is a word which combines the fierceness of a barbaric sound with something of the humor of a higher civilization. Uttered, or rather intoned, by a skilful artist, its power over the emotions is that of a conjurer. I have seen a peccant gooseherd shamed to tears by its viscid application: “Standing there like a gazabo, while yere geese wanders the wurrule!” An hour later, the same satirist used the phrase with such genial effect that the household smiled and the baby began to crow.

It was reasonably to be expected that this word, fairly launched in the sonorous prose of Thackeray, might be rehabilitated and eventually found frequenting the best society in lexicon or romance, as has been the case, to a certain extent, with the word “loaf,” at the hands of Walt Whitman. But think what toil awaits the lexicographers; for “gazabo” is a verbal maid-of-all-work. So surely as one hears the expression in every-day life, it will come colored with a meaning in consonance with the character of those who utter it. Some use it solely in derisive apostrophe; some as a medium of humorous description; and some have been heard to phrase it in the awe-compelling tones in which one describes a ghost. One Celtic household I have in mind — “of royal lineage though shattered fortunes, from a neighboring island” — applied the magic syllables as an open sesame to a door rigid in its closure against creditors. This was quite as effectual as Dick Swiveller’s sneezing signal.

Note that “Shaugraun” is normally spelled shaughraun; the OED entry (from 1986) defines it as “vagabond” and derives it from Irish seachrán ‘a wandering, a straying, an error.’ (It occurs in the quote from Michael Cooperson’s Impostures in this LH post.) “Familiar as it is in daily converse among Milesian people” suggests that Irish periodicals would be a good place to look for antedates, though it will be hard to beat the occurrence in Vanity Fair cited above (“I’ll thank ye tell me what they mean by that old gazabo on the top of the market-place”) if it is considered the same word. (I have tried to eliminate the copying errors from the passage I quoted, but there may well be a few remaining; needless to say, I will be grateful if any such are pointed out.)


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I would have taken the Vanity Fair mention as referring to a gazebo – not that the tower in the market place in Bruges looks particularly like a gazebo to me, but it is quite unusual looking!

    But I’ve never come across the other word before, so wouldn’t have had it available as a possibility.

  2. Yes, when I read Vanity Fair I too must have assumed it referred to a gazebo.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    The EDD has for gazebo:
    3. A show, gaping-stock; any object which attracts
    attention; a startling, staring ornament.
    Ir. As for the gazebo of pink flowers wid the tufty feathers
    growin’ out of them in her bonnet, Barlow Kerrigan (1894) 80;
    Musha, if you’re not the naturals to be made a gazabo of, Kennedy
    Fireside Stories (1870) 101. Wxf. He became a holy show, and
    gazabo to the entire world, KENNEDY Evenings Duffrey (1869) 305.

  4. Ah, so that’s got to be the Thackeray word.

  5. a startling, staring ornament

    just chiming in to appreciate the sadly obsolete “staring” in the sense of lurid!

  6. Is that the same “staring” as in “stark staring mad”? Not that everything lurid can be so described.

  7. ktschwarz says

    See ESNPC, Hobos, Gazabos, Tramps and “The Great Bozo!”, for a selection of gazabos in jokes and comics from the 1890s to the 1910s, e.g. in The Katzenjammer Kids.

  8. Say, that’s a mighty fine blog — I’m glad to learn about it.

  9. ktschwarz says

    Am I missing a joke? ESPNC has been referenced from here several times, e.g. about the origin of monkey wrench, getting one’s goat, mulligan (golf), white elephant, etc.

  10. No joke, unless you consider my failing memory one…

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