The Grammarphobia Blog

The wazoo story

Q: Do you have any idea about the origin of “up the wazoo”? I’ve been telling people that “wazoo” is Ukrainian for “lazy river,” but I don’t think I’ll get away with that much longer.

A: No, “wazoo” does not mean “lazy river,” at least not in any language we know. As you probably suspect, it’s a slang term for the buttocks or the anus, according to no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is a subject we’ve written about before on the blog. But that was in March 2008, and the OED has since updated its entry for “wazoo.” We figure it’s our duty to update our entry as well! 

As we said earlier, the OED dates the term to 1961, when the California Pelican, a humor magazine at the University of California at Berkeley, declared on its back cover: “Run it up yer ol’ wazoo!”

All in good time, the term went mainstream.

A Wall Street Journal article in 1971 ventured to say, “Golf itself is quite safe, the greatest risk being the possibility of a long drive plunking some poor fellow in the wazoo.”

And in 1975 a San Francisco Chronicle writer euphemistically said: “Dating is a real pain in the wazoo.”

The following decade ushered in an important chapter in the life of “wazoo.” As the OED explains, the phrase “up (also out) the wazoo came to mean “in great quantities, in abundance, to excess.”

The OED’s first citation for the three-word expression is from the Syracuse (NY) Herald-Journal (1981): “There comes a time in performing when you just do it. You can have theory up the wazoo.”

As for the “out” version of the phrase, here’s a citation from Tom Dietz’s novel Soulsmith (1991): “I know for a fact that he’s well provided for and insured out the wazoo.”

The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that “wazoo” as a euphemism might be a variation on “gazoo” and “kazoo,” which had been put to similar uses in the 1960s.

The OED also notes the similarities between the terms, and has citations for this slang usage of both “gazoo” (1965) and “kazoo” (1973).

Here’s an example of the latter, from the Lima (Ohio) News: “We get inflicted with GAO audits up the kazoo.”

The OED says etymologists have also suggested another possible connection: a link, via Louisiana Creole, with oiseau, the French word for bird.

And that gives us an excuse to end this item with the expression “flip the bird,” which  Cassell’s dates to the 1960s and defines as “to make an obscene gesture.”

Why is the one-finger salute referred to as flipping or giving the bird? Perhaps because “the bird” has been a slang term for the penis since the late 19th century.

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