An article in the Guardian newspaper last week described a tea-growing venture in the extreme south-western English county of Cornwall; that’s not so silly an idea as you might think, with the mild local climate being allied to global warming. (If successful, one day people may say that they wouldn’t do something “for all the tea in Cornwall”.) The writer said that the group involved wasn’t at all phased by the complicated harvesting process.
We British have been having trouble with this word ever since it began to colonise us back in the 1960s. Americans have known it for the better part of a couple of centuries as a verb (usually spelled faze) that means to become disturbed or discommoded by some event or occurrence. It’s a dialect version of a very old English verb to feeze, to drive off, put to flight, or frighten away. This older spelling survived a long time: it’s in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1848, for example (where it is defined as “to be in a state of excitement”). It also turns up as late as 1921 in The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs, by which date the faze spelling had become standard:
Battling Dago Pete landed a few more before the fight was over, but as any old fighter will tell you there is nothing more discouraging than to discover that your most effective blows do not feeze your opponent, and only the knowledge of what a defeat at the hands of a new sparring partner would mean to his future, kept him plugging away at the hopeless task of attempting to knock out this mountain of bone and muscle.
Why the shift of spelling to phase? It’s very common and is not by any means confined to British users, though it’s generally regarded as wrong. It looks odd and doesn’t seem to be connected with any other; such words are susceptible to shifts in spelling under the influence of popular etymology. It’s tempting to blame Star Trek and its phaser pistols, but it’s more likely that it has changed in imitation of common expressions such as to phase out or phased withdrawal.
The historical record shows, however, that it was often spelled as pheese. Bartlett has it as a variant form in his dictionary and Shakespeare used that spelling several times. There is dialect evidence in Britain that it was sometimes spelled as phaze. So the Guardian writer, and anybody else who spells it phase, have some useful antecedents on their side.