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Books Column: Zhoozsh up your reading with this one weird trick

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams proposes a temporary cure for present angst and despair, involving a jaunt through the pages of the St Bernard of books, the dictionary.

For dark times, I offer the following unconventional prescription: take a good, sturdy dictionary down from the shelf and meander within its pages until you’ve forgotten to be unhappy.

(Not literal dark times, of course: if Eskom’s load shedding strikes after sunset, and you’re thin on tallow and wicks, then the better thing to do is to contrive a means of acquiring more tallow, and more wicks.)

Dictionaries are the St Bernards of books. They have a wonderful knack of coming to the rescue. Within a good dictionary – by which I mean a dictionary that includes etymology and historical usage alongside the definitions – lies a nearly inexhaustible seam of fascinating linguistic happenstance. The distraction provided by a half-hour’s desultory finger-walking through a dictionary is worth at least the tome’s weight in headache tablets.

Here, let me show you. I’ve just retrieved one such tome of mine, A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles, published by Oxford University Press. Open it more or less in the middle, and there on the page that starts with “jerrymunglum” and ends with “jislaaik” is the word – erm – well, there’s no denying it – the word –

“Jewish”.

Aha.

Right, let’s approach this entry with screwed-up eyes and – what’s this? Jewish. Adjective and noun. Slang for “excellent”, “stylish” and “fashionable”, particularly with respect to clothing, and with a couple of alternative spellings, including “joujed”.

Is that quite kosher?

Apparently so. The entry calls a range of witnesses to corroborate this deployment of the word in South African speech, including Drum magazine and the august authors Can Themba and Bloke Modisane. Here’s Modisane in 1963: “The boys were dressed in a stunning ensemble of colour; ‘Jewished’ in their phraseology.” Here’s a Drum entry from 1972: “… maybe they were jealous of our expensive jewish.” And here’s Themba, in one of his short stories: “The tsotsi turned round and looked out of the window on to the platform. He recognised some of his friends there and hailed them. ‘O Zigzagsa, it’s how there?’ ‘It’s jewish!’”

As for “joujed”, the most interesting detail related to this alternative spelling is that it has an alternative spelling of its own: namely, “zhoozshed”, or “zhoozsh” for short – a word in such common use, in Joburg at least, that it supplied the title of a cookbook by Jeremy and Jacqui Mansfield several years ago. If memory serves, that book sold well enough to earn a sequel, Zhoozshed: Faking It.

Imagine they had gone with the original slang term for their title instead. Jislaaik. I mean, Oy vey.

The point is that a good dictionary counts as a divertissement to dispel many a woe, temporarily at least. Reading a dictionary will certainly zhoozsh up your mood, not to mention your vocabulary. Bonus: if someone texts you a “Howzit” during your reverie of word exploration, you can reply – “It’s jewish!”

Now leave me in my browsing peace, as I avoid my current trials and tribulations by flipping around this South African dictionary. “Hyraceum” looks interesting, I wonder what that is. Oh, I see it’s also known as “dassiepis”. Dassie’s piss?! Schmegegge, surely… DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • Haha – laughing at “dassiepis” right now! Jip, there is such a slang term. My friend uses this in reference to weak, cheap wine-in-a-box, or even lately just a light white wine.

  • Yup Ben, I can certainly relate to the fun of discovering weird meanings and distasteful origins of words and slang one takes for granted……but alas, I am no longer able to reach to my bookshelf for the dictionary of SA English on historical principles. At well over R1,100 before postage just think how many great book I could buy on Kindle instead!! Alas have to leave for City or University reference libraries rather than my now digital 🥲bookshelf.

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