zhuzh it up!

(#1) Available as a sticker from Redbubble, also as a t-shirt

Enter Monica Macaulay (in Wisconsin), who posted this ad for seasoning packets from Uncommon Goods on Facebook yesterday, with her innocent comment:

(#2 & 3) Monica: “zhuzh it up! apparently a well-known expression”

Well, yes, well-known in some circles (dictionary resources, in considerable detail, to come below). It was popularized earlier in this century in the US by the tv program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; but then back in the 1960s and 70s in the UK by the BBC radio program(me) Round the Horne, with high-camp characters who made much use of a secret lexicon called Polari.

Local zhuzh. Earlier on this blog, two items:

— from my posting of 9/9/16, “Julian and Sandy”, on Polari, including the item zhoosh / tjuz (‘smarten up, stylize’), quoting Wikipedia:

Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers. On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.

… Polari was popularised in the 1960s on the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne. Camp Polari-speaking characters Julian and Sandy were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams.

— from my 10/21/19 posting, “In an Indian pickle”, on South Asian pickles (achar or achaar): from a bon appétit story by Carey Polis about Brooklyn Delhi tomato achaar:

… not just my salmon but also green beans, eggs, chicken, rice, toast, and anything else I make that needs that little extra zhuzh.

The dictionary coverage from Oxford. OED3 (Dec. 2020) created a set of zhuzh-related entries — noun zhuzh, verb zhuzh, adj. zhuzhy — with quite a lot of background material. The dictionary cites a number of alternative spellings (among them zhoosh, zhoozh, zhush), and the noun and verb entries have etymological notes. Here I give those notes, the glossing, and all of the cites:

First the noun zhuzh:

Etymology: Of uncertain origin: perhaps ultimately an imitative or expressive formation (compare in similar senses e.g. zing n. 2, pizzazz n., zap n. 1).

Compare from a similar date the related zhuzh v., zhuzhy adj., although the relative priority of the three words is unclear. For further discussion of the etymology, see zhuzh v.

slang. Style, glamour; a stylish or glamorous appearance or effect. Also: the action or an act of making something more stylish, attractive, or exciting. Cf. zhuzh v.

Originally used among gay men, apparently in Polari slang.

In earliest use with the sense ‘(style of) clothing’.

1968 B. Took et al. in B. Took & M. Coward Best of ‘Round the Horne’ (2000) 4th Ser. Episode 4. 192/1   Julian. Let’s have a vada at his zhush. Mr. Horne. Clothing. That’s translator’s note.

1973 Quorum [Washington DC] No. 8 13/2 A zhush of georgette negligee and a pair of gold lame thigh boots are about all many of the lovelies deem necessary as equipment.

1987 OutRage (Austral.) Oct. 25/3 An elegantly dressed young man..offers another towel followed by a comb and hair dryer to put the zhoosh back into your quiff.

1995 Independent (Nexis) [apparently Newark State College in NJ] 11 Nov. 61 My image needs a bit of a zhoozh, as stylists say.

2019 Daily Rec. & Sunday Mail [Scotland] (Nexis) 16 Nov. 31 It’s a good time to think of giving your dressing table a bit of a ‘zhuzh’.

Except for the first, about fashion and clothing, with two American cites (not apparently related to Queer Eye).

Then the verb zhuzh:

Etymology: The etymology of this word, and of the related noun and adjective, is uncertain and disputed; a number of suggestions have been made, but none of them is entirely unproblematic or confirmed beyond doubt by the available evidence.

Derivation from a Romani verb in the sense ‘to clean’ or a corresponding adjective has been proposed (compare e.g. Hungarian Romani shuzo, British Romani yuzho clean, pure), but this presents both phonological and semantic difficulties, and supporting evidence appears to be lacking.

Dict. South African Eng. connects the present word and the corresponding noun and adjective with South African English slang terms for ‘excellent, smart, attractive’ derived from regional pronunciations of Jewish adj., which appear to have been motivated by the high reputation of Jewish tailors and tailoring (perhaps compare quot. 1968 at zhuzh n., apparently in the sense ‘clothing’). However, this is difficult to reconcile with the earliest documentation for zhuzh v. and related words, which suggests a British context, and no evidence has been found for a corresponding sense or pronunciation of Jewish adj. outside South Africa.

slang. transitive. To smarten up (someone or something); to make (something) more stylish, attractive, or exciting. Also with up. Originally used among gay men, apparently in Polari slang.

1970 P. Burton Lang. of their own: Polari, West End Homosexual Slang (typescript) (O.E.D. Archive) p. ii A zhooshy quean is a grand quean, to zhoosh up is to get ready.

1977 [UK] Gay News 2 June 23/1 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.

1988 N. Bartlett Who was that Man? [about gay life in London in the 19th century and in the 70s and 80s] iv. 82 Mostly the words are dusted off and brought out when we wish to zhoosh up a conversation, to announce a particular delight in our queenly style.

1990 [UK] Gay Times Mar. 25/3 In 1815 the Prince had employed John Nash, architect of Regent’s Park, to zhoosh up his rather plain and classical farmhouse by the sea.

2020 @greenpeaceusa 2 May in twitter.com (accessed 7 May 2020) We’re here to help you zhuzh up your Zoom background with some [‘glowing star’ emoji] inspiring images!

The final verb cite is the only one from the US, and it makes no reference to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

The dictionary coverage from Merriam-Webster. From the Merriam-Webster “Words We’re Watching” [for possible inclusion in the M-W dictionary] feature “How to ‘Zhuzh’ Up Your Vocabulary: Kick it up a notch”:

In February 2018, Netflix launched a reboot of Queer Eye, the former Bravo series in which five gay men perform a makeover of a fellow needing help in the areas of fashion, grooming, living space, food, and social grace. The original series aired from 2003 to 2007 and made stars of its “Fab Five,” while bringing the term metrosexual into the lexicon from its use by critics.

Another term that the show brought into the fold was one that didn’t initially see a lot of print use, possibly because editors didn’t know how to spell it: zhuzh, or zhoosh, or tzhuj. (The first two seem to have gained the most traction.)

A go-to word for Queer Eye’s original fashion guru, Carson Kressley, zhuzh describes the act of making slight improvements or accents to a wardrobe or look (such as by adding a pocket square, teasing one’s hair, or popping a shirt collar).

So many women were coming up to me asking, “How do I look?” or “Can you just zhuzh me?” or “What should I wear?” And I’d say, “Well, I’m trying to pay for my ice cream right now, but I can give you a couple quick tips.”
— Carson Kressley, in Main Line Today, 5 Apr. 2017

The new Queer Eye team doesn’t use the term so much, but those who remember the old show fondly still do, both as a noun and a verb (sometimes with up). In general use, the word has transcended fashion to mean something along the lines of “a slight improvement or adjustment” or “to improve in appearance by way of a slight adjustment”:

The reboot is fine company in several contexts, for instance, when it is lending ambient zhuzh to your home while you’re picking up around the place. Half-watching any of its eight episodes, the viewer feels its aspirational anima infuse the room.
— Troy Patterson, The New Yorker, 26 Feb. 2018

Recently, we told you about seven easy under-$20 ways to upgrade your space, and now, we’re turning our attention to easy décor improvements. Fiona Byrne, an editor turned interior decorator who recently zhuzhed up spaces for Montauk’s Surf Lodge, tells us her eight favorite ways to kick up an apartment.
— New York Magazine, 31 Oct. 2017

Summer is the season of laid-back hairstyles that need nothing more than a spritz of salt spray and a maybe a quick zhuzh before heading out the door.
— Samantha Sasso, Refinery29, 5 Dec. 2017

Fellow celebrity hairstylist Chad Wood recently mentioned he loves to use pomade to zhuzh up second-day curls, and if it can give Bellisario results, pomade is firmly on the shopping list.
— Rachel Nussbaum, Glamour, 20 July 2017

Fallon and his writers’ greatest innovation to the format was to zhuzh up the guest segments into participatory “games” — like the absurdist physical-comedy bits from Late Night With David Letterman, but with their underlying sense of subversion surgically removed.
— Alison Herman, The Ringer, 12 Feb. 2018

Pronounced [ /žUž/ with the /U/ of good], zhuzh sounds onomatopoetic, with a resemblance to other sound-effect words, such as whoosh or zoom, that suggest dynamic movement, or perhaps more appropriately, a ruffling of hair or fabric. Some attribute the word to Polari, a kind of slang used in the British underground performing arts as well as the gay subculture [reference here to an earlier edition of the OED].

Kressley told the Sydney Morning Herald that he learned the term while working for the clothing designer Ralph Lauren.

Only time will tell if zhuzh establishes itself enough to officially add an accent to our famously unkempt language. We’ll keep taking citations, though it may take more than a slight ruffle to make English presentable for polite society.

There’s clearly some odd British vs. American lexicographers’ thing going on here, with Oxford showing no awareness of Queer Eye and M-W focused almost entirely on it. The sequence of uses would seem to be:

— in Polari on the BBC (whatever the word’s previous history), in something like the sense ‘get ready, smarten up’;

— moved into British fashion and clothing contexts through the popularity of Round the Horne, in the sense ‘make (something) more stylish, attractive, or exciting’;

— this usage imported to such contexts elsewhere, notably in the US;

— where it is popularized in wider usage by Queer Eye, especially via Carson Kressley

Bonus on Carson Kressley and camping it up. Daniel Kusner has a blog piece of 8/22/16 on Carson Kressley and his career. On the original Queer Eye, Kressley could be relied on to provide campy notes for all occasions. Kusner gives us an assortment of Kressley looking and acting campy, playing the clown, but he also gives us an early photo of Kressley looking intense and serious, as well as unshowily but perfectly fashionable (man’s got style) — and oddly vulnerable:

(#4) Kressley was a child of the PA Dutch country, as was I, but we’ve both ended up far from Allentown PA, where we both were born, Kressley in 1969, me in 1940; he grew up outside Allentown, I grew up outside Reading

Kressley went on to get his B.A. from Gettysburg College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa; I went on to get my A.B. from Princeton University, where I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. We were both really smart kids; I think we’re both really smart as adults too.

From childhood on, Kressley has competed in Saddlebred equitation events, sometimes at the Olympic team level; and he continues to participate in those events. Something he’s dead serious about. And of course his passion with clothing and fashion (for women as well as men) is deeply earnest, not frivolous at all.

I note that camp is a presentation of self that can overshadow, even conceal, dead-serious commitments, engagements, and competencies. A clownish, campy, faggy, femmy, etc. persona is not a reliable predictor of a man’s other characteristics.

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