The Grammarphobia Blog

A wazoo-ful of prepositions

Q: During your last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, you said English had prepositions “up the wazoo.” Is the proper expression “UP the wazoo” or “OUT the wazoo”?

The latest OED citation for this usage is in a 2003 novel, Small Town, a post-9/11 thriller by the mystery writer Lawrence Block: “There’d be security up the wazoo, cops and Secret Service agents a mile deep.”

A: Well, I’m glad to see the adjective “proper” used with this expression, since I had a misgiving or two after saying it on the air. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled that the phrase’s origin wasn’t all that proper.

I did some checking after the show and confirmed that the earliest published references for “wazoo” in the Oxford English Dictionary refer to the buttocks or the anus.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still describes it as “vulgar slang” for the anus. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now calls it merely slang and says “wazoo” can refer to an excess of something (the way I used it on WNYC).

The OED speculates that “wazoo” might be derived from the kazoo, a musical instrument whose name has been used in similar expressions: “up the kazoo”; “freeze your kazoo off.”

The OED’s first citation for “wazoo” comes from the back cover of the May 1961 issue of the California Pelican, a now-defunct humor magazine at the University of California, Berkeley: “Run it up yer ol’ wazoo!”

In short time, “wazoo” traveled a long way. The next citation is in the April 1, 1971, issue of the Wall Street Journal: “Golf itself is quite safe, the greatest risk being the possibility of a long drive plunking some poor fellow in the wazoo.”

The OED notes that “wazoo” is often used as a substitute in expressions where the word “ass” would normally be found, as in this citation from the Feb. 14, 1975, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle: “Dating is a real pain in the wazoo.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the word “wazoo” was being used to describe a great quantity of something. The first OED reference comes from the Jan. 5, 1981, issue of the Herald-Journal in Syracuse, NY: “There comes a time in performing when you just do it. You can have theory up the wazoo.”

Here’s another citation, from the June issue of the American Bar Association Journal: “I had done well – law review, Coif, American Jurisprudence book awards up the wazoo.” (The Order of the Coif is an honor society for US law graduates.)

As for your question, Merriam-Webster’s lists both “up the wazoo” and “out the wazoo” as slang expressions meaning in excess. But the OED includes the preposition “in” when the expression is used in its anal sense.

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