Sunday, May 01, 2011


A friend playing Words for Friends recently intimated that I might not know the meaning of the word Phiz, which I had just played for a hefty number of points on a Triple Word score.

I owe my knowledge of this lighthearted, little word (and its cousins, phizzog and physiognomy) to two sources: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novels and Carl Sandburg's poem, Phizzog. I have read all of the (nearly 50) Nero Wolfe novels multiple times (of course, by reading I also mean listening to the unabridged audiobooks). They are among my favorite books, and Nero's (Rex's) love of language has improved my own vocabulary, grammar, and diction immeasurably over the years.

So here are some quips and quotes from the novels. Invariably the speaker is Wolfe's sidekick, assistant, and man Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the celebrated detective, Archie Goodwin. (Wolfe, himself, despised slang and never used it!)

"Then I proceeded to cleanse the form and the phiz and get the figure draped for the day."
—The Rubber Band (1936)

"The one in front was a six-footer with a long narrow phiz and grizzled hair…"
—“Too Many Detectives” (1956) from Three for the Chair

"Cocking an eye at his earnest phiz, which was passable, but no pin-up, I would have said that she was overpricing him."
—“When a Man Murders” (1954) from Three Witnesses

“ 'I see.' Jessup looked at me, saw only an open and manly phiz, ready to help, and went back to Wolfe."

—Death of a Dude (1969)

"I had of course done a survey on him, including the contrast between his square-jawed rugged phiz and the indications that the race of fat and muscle would be a tie in another couple of years, but I wasn't ready for a final vote."
—The Second Confession (1949)

"She is not amused but after looking at Archie’s 'open, intelligent, interested, sympathetic phiz…' "
—Please Pass the Guilt (1973)

"It was no pleasure to look at Wolfe’s gloomy phiz, so I looked back at the performers."
—“The Next Witness” (1955) from Three Witnesses

"A peep through the glass showed me a phiz only too well known, so I slipped the chain on before I opened the door to the extent of the six inches which the chain permitted."
—“Bitter End” from Death times Three (1985)

By Carl Sandburg
This face you got,
This here phizzog you carry around,
You never picked it out for yourself
at all, at all—did you?
This here phizzog—somebody handed it
to you—am I right?
Somebody said, “Here’s yours, now go see
what you can do with it.”
Somebody slipped it to you and it was like
a package marked:
“No goods exchanged after being taken away”—
This face you got.

These slang/shortened forms (as well as alternate spellings such as phizog, vizzog, fizzog) derive from physiognomy, the face or countenance, especially when considered as an index to the character: a fierce physiognomy. See (Note the similarity also to the word visage.)

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