Something as simple as morning coffee, and the word “pizzazz,” can stir up memories of childhood.
You might not think about it much, but language and linguistics are all around you. And that’s precisely what author Katie Haegele illustrates in Slip of the Tongue (Microcosm Publishing, 2014). Whether it’s used to create art or simply to communicate, language is an integral part of the world we live in. Through interviews, research, and musings on today’s digital world Haegele breathes life into the contemporary state of the English language. The following excerpt, from “Either You Have It, or You Don’t,” links language and long-term memory with just one word: pizzazz.
After my father died, I moved back home with my mother, and during the five years that I stayed there, our little family slowly shifted around his not being there anymore, like grass growing in on an empty lot where a house used to be. Even the physical space around us altered, bit by bit, to reflect my mother’s taste and not his. Outside of the fantastic pumpkin color on the dining room walls that only he knew would turn out right, there wasn't a whole lot of evidence that he had ever existed.
But I still remember this one thing that hung around for a while, and kept popping up to surprise me. When my sister was in high school she went to Disneyland with her friends, and she brought back the same gift for each of us: big coffee mugs with Disney characters on them, each personifying a different word, which was scribbled loudly all over it in different crazy fonts. My mom’s word was lovely, mine was vivacious, and my dad’s was pizzazz. I remember being struck at the time by the dual unlikelinesses of both stupid Disney and my very quiet sister—who is so nonverbal that she didn't even really start talking until she was 5—having come up with such a perfect word to describe him. My dad, who kept his father’s fedora in his office because he knew it was cool, even if no one else did. Who stood in the laundry room, his sweaty clothes stained with green grass juice after every maniacal “aerobic gardening” session, and pulled off layer after layer of them while my mom bitched at him to get upstairs if he was gonna get undressed. Who explained to me one day when I was around nine why Buster Keaton was both funnier and sadder than Charlie Chaplin—“but maybe it’s toss-up,” he concluded by the end. Who let me shine up his giant hard black work shoes with this special shoe polishing kit every morning before work, even though he usually didn't have time and leather shoes, as I now know, do not need to be covered in fresh shoeblack every day to stay looking nice. The kit was a wooden box with a foot-shaped foot rest nailed to the top at an angle. Inside the box, which opened on a hinge and fastened shut with a latch, was a rag, a brush with black bristles and a couple of round tins of polish. When you opened the box it smelled tangy and toxic—I can almost taste it, remembering it now—and no one else’s dad had one just like it.
As I say, after he died my mom gave away, threw away, or packed away almost all of his things. But for some reason that fucking mug stayed in the kitchen, right in the cabinet we used the most. No one could use it; no one could even touch it. But every so often in the post-dishwasher shuffle it got pushed to the front and when I’d come down in the morning and open up the cabinet while I was still groggy and in need of coffee, I’d accidentally grab it and get this quick, deep pang of yearning in my middle, the kind you get when you’re stopped in your tracks at the sound of your ex’s voice coming out of the answering machine.
It’s that word. It’s just so perfect. That’s why it killed me, every single time.
Its first appearance during the glamorous 1930s. Its origin unknown. Its made-up sound, like it could be the name of a spice—an unusual one that you couldn't spell with confidence, not one you’d keep on hand but would have to go out and get special because the recipe called for it.
Those two sets of z’s. What kind of word is so sure of itself that it expects you to spell it with four z’s? One with pizzazz, that’s for sure.
But it’s a difficult word in this day and age. You can’t use it very often; it’s too flamboyant, too old-fashioned, too absurd. You choose it with care and use it only because it’s just the right word for what you want to say. There are other words like that, of course, but none of them leap to mind.
But they wouldn’t, would they?
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Slip of the Tongue: Talking About Language by Katie Haegele and published by Microcosm Publishing, 2014.