The Grammarphobia Blog

A word with pizzazz!

Q: Oh, how I would love to know where the expression “full of pizzazz” comes from! The phrase itself is full of pizzazz! Is it a Boston thing? Is it a 1940s and 1950s expression?

A: The noun “pizzazz” (also spelled “pizazz” and “pazazz”) originated in the 1910s and originally meant an expert or an exemplar, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. (This was news to me too!)

In the 1920s, the meaning evolved into style, glamour, or ostentation. By the 1930s, it was being used to mean energy or zest. I’d guess this is the meaning in the expression “full of pizzazz.”

The word’s etymology is unknown, though the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s frequently attributed to Diana Vreeland, the late fashion maven. (Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins is dubious about the Vreeland attribution.)

The OED’s first published reference is from Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, the year Vreeland arrived at the magazine as a columnist. Here’s the citation: “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 in a drink.”

Although its origin is unknown, “pizzazz” has echoes in “razzle” (a spree or a good time) and “razzmatazz” (showy, high-class, or an exclamation of pleasure). I think people back then had a lot more energy than we do today.

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