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Phizzog

In his blog The Oxford Etymologist, Professor Anatoly Liberman recently mentioned coming across phizzog in Slabs of the Sunburnt West, a book of 1922 by the American poet Carl Sandburg. He found that none of his students knew the word. That confirms my own finding that in the US it’s almost totally defunct as a slang term for the face.

As it happens, I encountered it equally serendipitously when researching my piece on fish-face recently:

Why hadn’t the fish-faced Frenchman shown his phizzog?

Salvage for the Saint, by Leslie Charteris, 1983. This was a teleplay by John Cruze for the British TV series Return of the Saint which was turned into a novel by Peter Bloxsom; it appeared under Charteris’s name as the 50th and last of his series of Saint stories.

The television programme was broadcast by CBS in the US at about the time when phizzog was uttering its life’s last gasp; the programme seems to have done nothing to revitalise its popularity.

The term remains widely known in Britain, though you’re likely to come across it in a dizzying variety of spellings guaranteed to dismay any seeker into its history. However, phizzog itself is uncommon. The form most often used is fizzog, but it also appears as phizog, phisog and physog, among others. The shorter form phiz is also still popular:

I remember a moment between the ceremony and the reception when we were queuing up in our gladrags to have our pictures taken for the OK! magazine spread. I felt a sudden, instinctive lurch — the thought of my phiz besmirching every hairdresser’s salon and dentist’s waiting room.

Observer, 3 Oct. 2014.

It’s odd that in twenty-first-century Britain we should still be unable to agree on the spelling, since phizzog and its relatives have been in use for at least 200 years. It’s also a little strange that the shorter form phiz appeared in the record much earlier than the longer one. One of its first commitments to print was this:

By the Mackins, now I view his Phiz well, methinks I see the very same Air and Meen, I’ve often seen in a Glass, he’s so damnably like me.

Amphitryon, by Titus Maccius Plautus, translated in 1694 by Laurence Echard while still an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge. By the mackins, a euphemistic way of referring to the Christian Mass, was an emphatic way of declaring something. We now spell meen as mien and say mirror instead of glass, short for looking-glass.

The source of all the slang forms is physiognomy. This came into English in the fourteenth century from Greek via French. The Greek derives from phusis, nature, and gnomon, a judge or interpreter. The first sense in English was that of judging a person’s character from his features. A little later, it added the idea of predicting a person’s future from his face; this seems a perilous method of divination, though not a surprising one, since prognosticators have tried everything from inspecting chicken entrails to studying the shape of clouds. However, the main sense of physiognomy has long been that of the facial features themselves.

The word has always been too long and scholarly-sounding to be welcome in the ears of English speakers. Even before they chopped it back to phiz they were slurring it. Shakespeare has the Clown in All’s Well That Ends Well assert that the Black Prince’s fisnomy was better known in France than England.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Dec. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 13 December 2014.