Sunday, 1 March 2009


Fired by the discussion of initial ʃt, Harry Campbell mentions an even stranger recent acquisition: a word we can agree neither how to spell nor how to pronounce: but let’s list it as ʒʊʒ zhoozh, as in to zhoozh something up, meaning to make more attractive, smarter, more exciting, to jazz it up.
The OED gives only the pronunciations ʒʊʃ and ʒuːʃ and the spellings zhoosh and zhush. Someone ought to tell the OED that many, perhaps most, of the people who use this word pronounce it with a final voiced consonant, ʒ. And I am not sure that I have ever heard it pronounced with rather than ʊ. I think the usual pronunciation is indeed ʒʊʒ, which twice violates the usual phonotactic constraints on ʒ, a consonant usually confined in English to intervocalic position, as in pleasure ˈpleʒə.
Although I know this word passively, it is not one I would actively use myself. Stylistically it strikes me as not just slang but camp slang (and I may be gay but I have never been camp). Indeed, the OED’s first citation (1977) is from Gay News, from a sentence which is written entirely in Polari, and which sounds as if it is a quote from Julian and Sandy in Round the Horne.
As feely homies..we would zhoosh our riahs, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar.
According to the Wikipedia article on Polari,
"Zhoosh" has entered English more recently, especially through the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Its initial consonant, unique in that position in English, has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", "tszuj" etc. The word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the "zh" sound as in the word "measure".
...which I agree with.
In a letter to the Guardian in 2003, W. Stephen Gilbert says
you might zhush up a tired salad by adding some garnish, or stick some zhush in an article for the Guardian by adding a couple of dubious jokes.
But if he were to use that word in an article for the paper
some po-faced sub [would] remove it on the naff grounds it wasn't in the desk dictionary.
It clearly ought to be. Sorry I didn’t pick it up in time to make it into the third edition of LPD.


  1. How bona to vada your dolly old eek on here. ;)

    The variety of spellings in Polari - even its own name - probably betrays the fact that it was primarily meant to be spoken rather than written down (understandable given the circumstances for its use). In which case, there probably never will be any definitive way in spelling "zhoozh" ... though I agree that it wouldn't ordinarily be pronounced with the ʃ sound at the end, even if it is spelt with an "sh". Maybe another listen to Julian and Sandy on Round The Horne (on BBC7, perhaps) is in order but, just as you suggested, I *think* they use the same sound at each end of the word.

    I'm not sure about the vowel sound, though, and I might suggest that it may well be subject to regional variations - e.g. you might get a different form of the "u" or "oo" sound on Canal Street in Manchester to that in Old Compton Street. It would be tricky for me to give any empirical proof of that, though, as I don't know many gay men originally from the north who also use Polari!

  2. I'm not sure you can really say that final ʒ "violates the usual phonotactic constraints" - I would have thought there were enough words like 'rouge', 'garage' (which the BBC recommended with final ʒ as early as 1928) to add it to the list of final consonants? (LPD itself has ʒ as the only pronunciation for 'rouge' and the first for 'garage'.)

  3. The phonotactic constraints it violates (John doesn't actually spell them out) are
    1. /ʒ/ doesn't appear word-initially
    2. /ʊ/ doesn't appear before a voiced fricative

    Also, I've often heard this word pronounced /ʒəʒ/, which violates constraint 1 above as well as the constraint against schwa in a syllable.