8 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

zhuzh.jpgNow, I have little to no truck with this whole Queer Eye phenomenon. First of all because it’s a “reality”/lifestyle/format show and therefore the scourge of our times. Second because I can’t stand this so-called “metrosexual” movement with all its stylings and hand creams and getting your colours done. Christforsake! Sure, we’ve driven women spare for centuries over all this stuff, but it’s not obvious to me that the solution is now to start driving men spare too. Why can’t we all lighten up? Let that poor sap leave his shirt untucked. Or hers.

None of this is meant to condone John Laws’s insane rant, of course. I certainly don’t want to be counted among the frankly disconcerting group of “truck drivers, wharf labourers, free-thinking red-blooded Australian men and [Laws himself]” for whom that rough-headed pillow-biter-smiter claims to speak. I just don’t want to watch the show.

But it does seem to have coined or at least popularised a new word, and that’s always interesting, especially considering the orthographical difficulties involved. People have evidently tried to spell it tsuz, tszuj, tjuzs, zjuj and tjuz, most of which just involve throwing random letters around. The Macquarie Dictionary has chosen zhuzh, which is the only sensible spelling. The American Dialect Society has a bob each way with both zhuzh (yay) and tjuzs (what?), but it also voted “metrosexual” to be the word of 2003 and deserves to be thoroughly ignored.

What we’re talking about here is a voiced postalveolar fricative. Two of them, in fact. They’re only occasionally found in English, for example in the middle of measure and vision, but they’re everywhere in French, as in jeune and Jacques. They also turn up in Eastern European languages, like the Russian Ж which is generally transliterated as zh. The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol ʒ, which is also called ezh. It makes sense: z is just the voiced version of s (they’re alveolar fricatives), and ʒ is the voiced version of ʃ, which we’re all quite happy writing as sh as in shut the hell up, John Laws!

ʒ is transcribed in other ways in other languages. For example, in Hungarian it’s zs, in Polish and Czech it’s a z with a diacritic (ż and ž), and in South American versions of Spanish it can be rr or ll. Nowhere in the world, as far as I can see, is it transcribed as tj—that’s an affricate, if it’s anything.

That u in the middle’s a bit ambiguous, but English has never worked out what do with that pesky near-close near-back rounded vowel. There’s put, but there’s also pub; on the other hand there’s book but also boot (these distinctions do depend on local prounciation and fall down in various parts of England). Nobody’s suggested anything else, though, so I don’t know why I raise it.

I doubt I’ll ever actually say it, but if you choose to, you should know that you’re saying zhuzh, and not any of these abominations that turn out more like chuzz or zudge—if you’re lucky.