What Does ‘Zhuzh’ Mean (and Why Is It So Hard to Spell)? - Quick and Dirty Tips (2023)

"Zhuzh" is so hard to spell because the "zh" sound is rare in English, and this word also doesn't follow the typical English (or even French) spelling patterns.

I was thinking about the consonant sound /ʒ/ recently. You know, it’s the sound that begins the final syllable in words such as “vision,” “fusion,” and “measure.” We also have it in words such as “usual” or “casual.”

But English doesn’t like using this sound at the ends of words. I can think of a few, like “garage,” “mirage,” and “prestige.” Then we start getting into words that are used less frequently, such as “beige” (that tannish color), “rouge” (a kind of reddish makeup for your cheeks), “luge” (the winter Olympic sport), and “loge” (a special section of seats in a theater). There may be a few more, but they’re hard to bring to mind. And even the fairly familiar ones like “garage” sometimes end up with a more familiar “J” sound at the end. In the US Midwest, for example, “garage” is sometimes pronounced more like “grodge.”

The ‘zh’ sound is rare in English.

As for /ʒ/ at the beginnings of words, you might as well forget about it. There are some French names, such as Jacques (/ʒɑk/) and Jean (/ʒɑ̃n/), which Star Trek fans recognize in the name Jean-Luc Picard, and which fans of “Les Misérables” recognize in the name Jean Valjean. Then there’s the Russian name Zhivago, which I’ve only ever heard in the book and movie title “Doctor Zhivago.”

So I was surprised to learn about an English word that has the sound /ʒ/ not once, but twice, at the beginning and the end! The word is “zhuzh,” and the first place I heard it was in an episode of the podcast “A Way with Words.” A caller had been confused when his girlfriend saw him adjusting his hair and said he was “zhuzhing” it. The hosts Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett told him that this word goes back to the 1960s, and that it “seems to have arisen from secret lingo popular in parts of the gay community in the United Kingdom” at that time. They also mentioned a possible origin in the Romany word “zhouzho,” which means to tidy something up.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a similar definition, with an earliest citation from 1977. It’s also in the Cambridge Dictionary, defined as “to make something more interesting or attractive by changing it slightly or adding something to it.” There’s also a blog post about it on Merriam-Webster.com, which notes that “zhuzh” is not only a verb, but also a noun. Here’s an example they collected from 2017, with “zhuzh” as a verb:

Fellow celebrity hairstylist Chad Wood recently mentioned he loves to use pomade to zhuzh up second-day curls.

And now here’s one with “zhuzh” used as a noun, also from 2017:

Summer is the season of laid-back hairstyles that need nothing more than a spritz of salt spray and maybe a quick zhuzh before heading out the door.

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘zhuzh’ ‘didn’t initially see a lot of print use, possibly because editors didn’t know how to spell it.’

The Merriam-Webster post brings up an interesting point about this word. It says that “zhuzh” “didn’t initially see a lot of print use, possibly because editors didn’t know how to spell it.” In fact, if you’re listening to the podcast of this episode rather than reading it, you might be wondering yourself how to spell it. I’ve been spelling it Z-H-U-Z-H, but Merriam-Webster notes that it’s also been spelled Z-H-O-O-S-H. That’s how it’s spelled in the OED, which also lists alternative spellings Z-H-U-S-H, J-O-O-Z-H, and Z-H-O-O-Z-H. Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett also mention the spelling J-O-O-S-H. And the Cambridge Dictionary has still another spelling: Z-H-O-O-S. They don’t list it in their definition, but it’s spelled that way in one of the citations they provide: “This no-cook, no-fuss side dish is served with flatbread, and cream cheese zhoosed up with orange zest and mustard.” That’s seven spellings, in case you lost count.

You know how when you learn a new word, all of a sudden it seems like you hear it everywhere? Not even a week after hearing that episode of A Way with Words, I came across a tweet from a man named Dave Heal, complaining about people making demands on your time at the workplace. He mentioned “zhuzhing up your colleague’s slide deck,” and his very first reply came from a woman namedNani, who said, “So THAT’S how you spell it. #mysterysolved.” A Twitter user by the name of crawford replied to that reply, tweeting that they “spent an entire meeting mistaking ‘zhuzhing”’ for ‘judging’ and needed a good 20 minutes to sort through all the incorrect conclusions that created.” Yet another reply came from Kristen Dolen, who said, “OMG this is how you spell this?! (also immediately realized I’ve never tried to write that word).”

I suspect that this spelling confusion is part of the reason that people’s first reaction to “zhuzh” is sometimes to doubt that it’s even a word. Elijah, the caller to A Way with Words, is not the only one. For example, there’s the person who contributed a kind of mean definition of “zhuzh” to urbandictionary.com. It was accurate in that it had “means to ruffle a shirt or outfit” as part of the definition, but the rest of the entry was a personal attack on the person that the definition writer learned the word from. She says that “zhuzh” is a word that this person “totally made up”; that the definition “makes no sense and doesn’t need its own word”; and that this person “needs to use real words like a normal person.”

‘Zhuzh’ doesn’t look or sound like English.

Wow! Why such hate? Why don’t words like “kerfuffle” or “discombobulate” get this kind of scorn? I think it’s because those words sound English. Even if you’ve never heard them before, if you can read English, you can probably spell them confidently, and come pretty close to the accepted spelling.

By contrast, “zhuzh” is composed entirely of two sounds that are both tricky to spell. First of all, take the vowel. You can spell it with a U, but readers won’t know if they should read it as a short U as in “mush,” a long U as in “sushi,” or that in-between U sound that we don’t really have a good name for, as in “push.” Alternatively, you could spell it with OO, but you run into the same problem: Readers won’t know if they should read it like the OO in “blood,” the OO in “mood,” or the OO in “good.”

As for the consonant, there are even more possibilities. In words like “version” and “Asia,” it’s spelled S-I. In words like “measure” and “casual,” it’s spelled with S-U. In the word “azure,” it’s spelled with a Z. In words like “garage” and “prestige,” it’s spelled G-E. In those French names like Jacques, it’s spelled with a J. Then, of course, there’s the Z-H spelling we see in Russian names such as Brezhnev. That makes seven ways of representing the /ʒ/ sound so far.

Then we have a couple of spellings in words that don’t even seem like they should have this sound. First, there’s “equation.” That “-tion” suffix is usually pronounced with an SH sound, but for some reason, it’s usually pronounced with a /ʒ/ sound in this one word: equation. Second, there’s “fission.” Personally, I pronounce this with an SH sound, but most of the people I hear pronouncing it say it with the /ʒ/ sound: [fɪʒən] (rhymes with “vision”). I’m guessing this is because this word is often used in the same context as the word “fusion,” and the two pronunciations are creeping closer together. There’s precedent for this; it’s how the words “four” and “five” both ended up with an F sound at the beginning, even though in the original, Proto-Indo-European ancestor language, the word for “five” began with a K sound. The two words are often heard very near each other, and they have similar meanings; the sounds started to follow suit. The same thing happened with our words “male” and “female,” which originally didn’t rhyme.

Regardless of the reason, that brings us to nine spellings of the consonant sound in “zhuzh.” By my count, that’s the most ways of spelling any of the English consonant sounds. Why on earth is there so much variety here, for a sound that’s so rare in our language?

Because the ‘zh’ sound was a late arrival to English, it missed being ‘assigned’ to a letter in the alphabet.

The short answer is that the /ʒ/ sound was a late arrival to English, so there was never a letter in the alphabet that got assigned to it. When a modern English word contains this sound, it is almost always a recent borrowing from another language, or the result of a process called palatalization. In fact, the same goes for many of our words that contain an SH sound. Take our “-ssion” suffix, as in “mission,” which we borrowed from Latin via French. In Latin, this suffix was pronounced as it was spelled. But over time, the sequence of /si/ plus another vowel coalesced into a single syllable: /sja/. Then that sequence further developed into /ʃa/. This same process has happened in languages around the world, and it’s even still happening in English. It’s how we ended up with an SH sound at the beginning of “sugar” and in the middle of “issue.” If someone tells you “I miss you” and it sounds like “I’m issue,” that was palatalization going on as the speaker ran the “miss” and the “you” together.

In a similar way, a word like “vision” used to be pronounced more like /vɪz.i.ən/, with three syllables. Then it became two syllables: /vɪz.jən/. Then finally, the sequence /zjə/ merged into just /ʒən/. The same for words like “azure,” “leisure,” and “casual.”

Since these instances of /ʒ/ arose from sequences of /z/ plus an /i/ and another vowel, that means that this sound always occurred in the middle of a word. All our examples of /ʒ/ at the end of a word were borrowings from French, and all our examples of it at the end of a word were borrowings from French or Russian.

That in turn means that when we hear a /ʒ/ at the end of a word, we kind of expect it to be French, and probably spelled with a G-E, as in “beige” or “rouge.” When that isn’t the case, it’s hard to know what to do. For example, when we shorten words that have /ʒ/ in the middle, and it ends up at the end, confusion ensues. Stan Carey tweeted in 2015, “Lots of variation and uncertainty over the spelling of abbreviated ‘casual’ [i.e. /kæʒ/]– cazh, caj, cas, casj, casz, etc.” Look at that. Even two more ways to spell that /ʒ/ sound: S-J and S-Z!

Many English words that use the ‘zh’ sound came from French, but ‘zhuzh’ doesn’t look like a French word either.

“Zhuzh” presents the same kind of problem, because it doesn’t sound like a French word. That vowel just doesn’t fit a pattern. It’s not a long A sound like in “beige”; it’s not a long E sound like in “prestige”; it’s not a short O sound like in “garage”; it’s not a long U sound like in “rouge.” Instead, it’s this weird vowel in the U family that French doesn’t have. So we can’t look to borrowed French words for a hint on how to spell the end of this word.

One of Carey’s followers even made the “zhuzh” connection when she tweeted a reply. Melissa Harris wrote, “I saw, on the back of a shampoo bottle, the word ‘jujj’. As in ‘Jujj up your hair’. Obviously insane, but not sure how I’d do it.” J-U-J-J: Now we’re looking at eight ways of spelling this one-syllable word!

We also don’t expect to hear /ʒ/ at the beginning of a word at all, unless it’s some foreign name. But “zhuzh” is used as a verb or a common noun, so it’s not obvious that we should spell it with a J, as in Jean or Jacques. However, that seems to have been where the people writing the ad copy on the back of that shampoo bottle came down.

All of this just goes to show how useful the International Phonetic Alphabet can be. Using the IPA, there’s only one way to spell this word: /ʒʊʒ/.

That’s all. It’s been a pleaSure presenting this homaGe to an unuSual English sound.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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