Seeking Pizzazz in the Talmud

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 30, 2008, issue of November 07, 2008.
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Mrs. C. Fletcher wastes no words. She writes, in an e-mail entitled “Pizzazz”:

“My husband mentioned a passage from the Talmud, now forgotten, that included a similar word with a similar meaning. And dictionaries cite a (Jewish?) fashion designer of the 1930s as its inventor. What do you say?”
I say, firstly, that if Mr. Fletcher remembers a passage from the Talmud, he can’t have forgotten it completely, and secondly, that Diana Vreeland, the fashions editor of Harper’s Bazaar (and later, Vogue) who is reputed to have coined “pizzazz,” was definitely not Jewish. In fact, Vreeland (a legendary character who, since her death in 1989, has been the subject of a full-length biography, a play, and the Hollywood film “Infamous,” and is said to have partly inspired the character played by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”) was a direct descendant of George Washington’s brother. True, she was also related to Pauline de Rothschild, the second wife of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a scion of the famous Jewish banking dynasty. But Pauline was born a Potter, the great-great-granddaughter of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, and had Pocahontas as an even more distant ancestor. You can’t get much less Jewish than that.

As for the Talmud, I would imagine that the passage Mr. Fletcher has in mind is a well-known story occurring in slightly different versions in the tractates of Shabbat and Ketubot. In both, a gentile scolds a rabbi for acting impetuously and says to him: “You Jews are a hasty people! You once put your mouth before your ears and you are still as impulsive today.” The Aramaic for “hasty people” is ama peziza, and the gentile is referring to the response of the Children of Israel to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, about which, in Exodus, 24:7, we read: “And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant to read to the people, and they said, ‘All that the Lord hath said we will do and listen to’.” A people that promises first to do and then to listen to what it is that it is supposed to do is indeed impetuous.

It seems safe to say that, even had Diana Vreeland been a Talmud scholar on the side, peziza would not have led her to pizzazz. Being hasty or impulsive is not quite the same as having (to quote one dictionary’s definition of pizzazz) “an attractive and exciting vitality….combined with style and glamour.” Many things can be said of the Israelites at Sinai, but not that they were stylish or glamorous.

Still, Mrs. Fletcher’s query raises an interesting question. Are there certain sounds that have built-in associations in certain languages? Take the “z”-sound in English, for instance. Is it just an accident that we have buzz, whiz, fizz, fizzler, sizzle, zip, zap, zing, zoom, zig-zag, razzle-dazzle, and razzmatazz, all of which denote a suddenness, quickness, vigor, or flashiness of movement, sound, or behavior that command our attention, just as does pizzazz?

And now think of the following Hebrew verbs: pazaz, moved quickly (hence Hebrew paziz and Aramaic peziza); pizez, danced or frolicked vigorously; zaz, moved; gaz, passed swiftly; nataz, spurted, sprayed, flew from; tazaz, whizzed; hDOTazaz, sparkled; hDOTizez, spouted, gushed; zimzem, buzzed, etc. They are markedly like the English ones.

Any amateur linguist, of course, would caution you against coming to hasty conclusions. In both languages, he would tell you, the great majority of words with “z” in them don’t fit our profile at all. There are many more words in English like hazy, lazy, woozy, and sleazy than fizz or sizzle, and the same is true of Hebrew. There is nothing intrinsically sudden, quick, vigorous or flashy about the consonant “z.”

This is perfectly true — but it is also, I think, missing the point. All languages have words, known as onomatopoeic (from the Greek for “word-coining”), like English “bubble” or “twitter,” which derive from natural or manmade sounds — and it is clear that English “buzz” and its Hebrew counterpart zimzem belong to this class. It is also clear why, for both imitate the sound made by flies and other insects as they move quickly through air. Indeed, the Hebrew word for a fly, z’vuv, is onomatopoeic itself.

But languages also have non-onomatopoeic words that are formed on the analogy of onomatopoeic ones. Although “titter,” for instance, is not onomatopoeic, its meaning of a high-pitched laugh was probably suggested by “twitter,” and it is highly likely that the medieval English “buzz” led to the formation of early modern “whiz” and “fizz,” which in turn encouraged 20th-century words like “zip,” “zap,” “zoom” and “zing,” as well as “razzle-dazzle” and “razzmatazz” — all of which must have inspired Diana Vreeland’s “pizzazz.” And while their history is different, the same may be the case with Hebrew words like nataz, hazaz, tazaz, and pazaz, the mother of peziza in Mr. Fletcher’s ama peziza.

And so, in a very roundabout way, pizzazz and peziza are perhaps connected after all, though not because Diana Vreeland knew her Talmud.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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