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How Do You Spell Zoozh… Zuzh… Szhuzh… That Word That Means to Spiff Up?

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Joan from Buffalo, New York, wants to know how to spell a particular word that means to spiff up, clean up, straighten, or fix. The word is zhuzh, which has had dozens of different spellings over the years because it’s primarily transmitted orally, rather than on the page. It comes from the jargon called Polari, used in the London theater, entertainment, and fashion worlds in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and strongly associated with the gay subculture of the time. Before that, it was trader’s cant based largely on Italian and the language of the Romani, which happens to have a word that sounds like zhuzh that means “to clean.” A BBC Radio show in the 1960s called Round the Horne featured two characters whose on-air patter was filled with Polari words, including drag, camp, and zhuzh, and helped popularize the term, as did the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reality TV show launched in 2003. This is part of a complete episode.

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