The Etymology of “Pizzazz”

While some sources including etymonline.com say that “pizzazz” (or “pizazz”) first appeared in print in a March 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, it actually appears earlier in a 1913 issue of The Main Sheet, a largely humorous publication by the Indoor Yacht Club, albeit with a different usage than we see today.

It is true that today’s usage of the word “pizzazz” is likely from the 20s/30s, as described in the Bazaar:

Pizazz, to quote the editor of the Harvard Lampoon, is an indefinable dynamic quality, the je ne sais quoi of function; as for instance, adding Scotch puts pizazz into a drink. Certain clothes have it, too.

The word does not appear earlier in any known issues of the Harvard Lampoon, so perhaps the editor in question said the word out loud or in another publication.

The earlier 1913 Main Sheet column in which “pizzazz” first appears is a satiric story called “It’s All Off With the Rough Stuff” about the Clean Language League of America’s campaign against “low-brow lingo.” It has a slightly different meaning here, and is used in the phrase “completely on the pizzazz,” meaning, more or less, something done away with or banned.

Brother Russell declared, bo, that his crowd had already framed it up with some of the big guys in the music world to put the kibosh on this line of junk, and that it was only a question of time before they would have such pieces as “When I Get You Alone Tonight” completely on the pizzazz.

The whole column is full of slang, idioms, jokes, and low-brow terms that would irritate the League. Some especially wonderful gems include “plum nuts,” “hifalutin,” “flossie,” “swimdiggle,” and “do the nobby.”

It also lays out which words and phrases are inappropriate for girls to say (including “fudge”) and for boys to say—all while joyfully repeating the terms in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible:

[T]hey swore to goodness that ‘doggone it’ was a doggone bad thing to say, and that ‘gosh darn’ was putrid, and that ‘bully gee’ and ‘I’ll be swimdiggled’ were expressions that a mucker might use.”

It even includes a bleeped-out word that “fathers must not say.”

(By the way, the Clean Language League of America does appear to have actually existed, according to this 1912 article in the financial journal Commercial West.)

You can read the full column below, and you can listen to the supposedly risqué song that it mentions, “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” here.


Full Column, “It’s All Off With the Rough Stuff,” from The Main Sheet, May 8, 1913:

IT’S ALL OFF WITH THE “ROUGH STUFF”

Clean Language Hatches Frame-Up to Put Kibosh on Low-Brow Noise.

The Clean Language League of America, which is plum nuts about being dead set against slang, cuss words, risqué stories, purple ragtime and wriggly cabaret shindigs—not because it cares a whoop, but because such things always sound like heck to strangers—held a wild-eyed jamboree in Chicago recently and, according to the New York Telegraph, cooped up plans for a grand hallelujah campaign to induce everybody to climb into the pure words wagon and swear off on throwing the low-brow lingo. Quite a considerable hunch of language bugs took the splurge and the enthusiasm was all to the velvet.

According to the dope that was passed out by one of the high moguls, Tommy Russell, the main doings, was lo pick out a publicity gang, which will have the job of throwing this line of bull into every state in the union, being particularly strong on the schools and colleges and not passing up the educational hang-outs for skirts. The side show of the movement will he to go after the kind of music that you hear in the all-night dumps and at public hog-rassles. Brother Russell declared, bo, that his crowd had already framed it up with some of the big guys in the music world to put the kibosh on this line of junk, and that it was only a question of time before they would have such pieces as “When I Get You Alone Tonight” completely on the pizzazz.

Would Spread the Doctrine

Another idea of the league is to put a straw boss in every other state for the purpose of hitching up with mutts as dippy as himself in order to help the good word along. This state gink is to be a sort of an Old-Miss-Over-AH and the purity expert in his particular neck of the woods.

The crowd passed a whole lot of hifalutin resolutions. They said that it made them as sore as a goat to have to hear their mothers using slang in the presence of the kids because it was a ten to one shot that it would put the little duffers’ morals on the blink. They said that sister must not say “fudge”—not even when there was nobody but guineas around—because “fudge” wasn’t a proper dido to find in a flossie’s vocabulary.

They pulled quite a bunch of stuff about what was O.K. for little brother to let himself loose on, but they swore to goodness that “doggone it” was a doggone bad thing to say, and that “gosh darn” was putrid, and that “bully gee” and “I’ll be swimdiggled” were expressions that a mucker might use, but that a gilt-edged young gazabo would never attempt to play up, even before a coon. Rough Stuff Is Banned.

The league, said that fathers must not say ——!*?——’——!, no matter if a guy waltzed up and walloped poor old pop on the beezer, and that only pie-trammers and hash-slingers would ever condescend to come across with such rough stuff as “Aw, nix on that,” “Cheese it” and “Shut your trap.”

As for the risqué stuff, there was quite a lot of hot air about that, too, and everybody agreed that if America was ever going to do the nobby and quit being a home of roughnecks, it was about time that the chickens and other young boobs let up on swapping yarns about what used to happen on Uncle John’s farm.

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