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Q From Dennis Kinzig: What is the origin of the word doozie in the phrase ‘it’s a doozie’, meaning something unique or outstanding? It is often said it relates to the 1920s automobile, the Duesenberg, but it was used in a letter by Carl Akeley at the Field Museum in the late 1890s so it cannot be the car that the word derived from.

A It was John Ciardi, I think, who suggested that doozy (as some dictionaries prefer to spell it) had something to do with the famous Duesenberg automobile, a car named after the brothers who developed it. Certainly the vehicles were known as Duesies in the 1920s and 1930s. But — as you have discovered — by the time Fred and August Duesenberg manufactured their first car in 1920, the noun doozy was already well established.

Your example actually predates those in the reference books, so it looks as though you have advanced lexicography by finding this earlier usage. These reference books, especially the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggest it first appeared about 1903.

You might think etymologists are slipping their mental gears if I tell you that they’re fairly sure that it comes from the flower named daisy. But that was once English slang, from the eighteenth century on, for something that was particularly appealing or excellent. It moved into North American English in the early nineteenth century and turns up, for example, in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker of 1836: “I raised a four year old colt once, half blood, a perfect picture of a horse, and a genuine clipper, could gallop like the wind; a real daisy, a perfect doll, had an eye like a weasel, and nostrils like Commodore Rodgers’s speakin’ trumpet”.

Experts think that that sense — which was still around at the end of the nineteenth century — might have been influenced by the name of the famous Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who first appeared in New York in 1893. Something Dusey was clearly excellent of its kind, and it is very likely that it and daisy became amalgamated in people’s minds to create a new term.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Nov. 2002

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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.

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Last modified: 30 November 2002.