I’ve been told that my posts could use a little more zhoozh. If only I knew what it means, and how to spell it! Is it zhush, zhuzh, tjuz, tjuzs, joozh, zoozh, or —? Is that a noun, or maybe a verb? Let’s see. …
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zhouzh. If Duke Ellington (right) had been a millennial, that’s the word he might have used in place of “swing” — though admittedly there would have been a problem with the rhyme.
The word became prominent a decade ago in the reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-7), often used in comments like “tjuz up the hair with a little gel and you’re ready to go.”
At that time it was notable enough to became one of the eight final candidates for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year 2003, losing out to metrosexual. For that vote, it was listed with two alternative spellings: zhuzh and tjuzs.
A typical use back then was in The New York Times Magazine for April 18, 2004:
“It’s when a set of rooms becomes a home, with the addition of a certain extra something. It’s what the style world calls the zhoozh. Think of a starlet being styled for the Oscars.”
In print, however, zhouzh has been almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, collecting half a billion words between 1990 and 2015, has exactly one instance of the word (spelled tjuzs). And that one isn’t found in print but rather taken from the transcript of a Today show broadcast July 23, 2010: “This is a Web site called I Write Like. So they take your writing style and they punch it in a computer and they tjuzs it around, and then out plops who you write like in terms of very, very famous authors during history.”
It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, with citations going back to 1977. The OED defines the verb that it spells zhoosh (while noting four others: zhush, joozh, zoozh, and zhuzh) as “to make more stylish or smart; to enliven, make more exciting,” adding that it originally was used “among homosexual men.”
As the blogger John Wells neatly defines it, to zoozh something up is to “make more attractive, smarter, more exciting, to jazz it up.”
How to pronounce it with the proper zhoush is almost as great a challenge as how to spell it. It uses the final consonant of beige or mirage as its initial and final consonants, and has the vowel of book in between — an anomaly for English, though not impossible to say. Aside from the name Zsa Zsa, there’s hardly another word in English that begins with that consonant. There’s a learned disquisition on the proper pronunciation in Wells’s Phonetic Blog for March 1, 2009.
So excuse me now, while I zhouzh up my prose for next week.