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shameless pleading

Geezer

Where all the food is soft and every day is Halloween.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word “geezer” or “geezing” come from? — Brent Lilly.

That’s a good question. I actually answered it about ten years ago, but that was before many of today’s geezers were geezers, and the ones who were are unlikely to remember the answer anyway, so we’ll do it again. In fact, I must be a geezer too, because I didn’t initially remember that I’d ever explained the word. What was the question again?

A “geezer” is, in popular usage today, an older person, almost always a man, often one whose behavior is regarded as either eccentric or stereotypically “elderly.” Grampa Simpson of the Simpsons TV show is probably the most well-known example of the “geezer” in popular culture today (“Dear Mr. President, there are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot.”). Grampa the “geezer” is often depicted as irritable and cranky (“Hey kid, get off my lawn”), at least mildly irrational (“I say we call Matlock. He’ll find the culprit.”), and mired firmly in the past (“The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.”).

Given how firmly “geezer” is connected today with old men, it’s a bit ironic that the term originally meant a person of any age. The criterion of “geezerhood” was not age but oddness, and when it first appeared in the late 1800s, “geezer” simply meant “an eccentric, unpleasant man.” The root of “geezer” is the English dialectical term “guiser,” which is a shortened form of “disguiser,” meaning a person who dresses up in costume for a masquerade or other occasion. To call someone a “guiser” (or “geezer”) was to say that they were dressed and behaving as oddly as one might on Halloween, for example. The transition of “geezer” to meaning an older, eccentric man took place around the 1920s, and the use of “geezer” to mean simply “weirdo” is now obsolete.

“Geezing,” presumably based on the verb “to geeze,” meaning “to act like a geezer,” isn’t in the dictionaries yet, but probably soon will be, as I have found myself using it on several occasions recently. Interestingly, “to geeze” has been fairly obscure slang among users of illicit narcotics since the late 1960s, meaning “to inject morphine, heroin or a similar drug.” The noun form “geezer” has been used since the 1920s to mean such an injection, apparently an outgrowth of “geezer” as slang for a drink of liquor in the late 19th century. Whether these uses of “geezer” are related to “geezer” meaning either an odd person or an old man is unclear, but if they are the connection may be an allusion to the drugs reducing the user to a state of insensibility associated with either dementia or senescence.

13 comments to Geezer

  • C.

    Dear Word Detective,

    You may be pleased to know that, in the fullness of time, “Geezer” had circled back to its origins, at least in England. In current UK slang, “geezer” is now a symonym for guy, bloke — although with yobbish or chav-like overtones. See for example, the song from a few years back by rapper The Streets, “Geezers Need Excitement” (“Geezers need excitement. If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
    Common sense simple common sense.”)

  • Half of our membership, average age 70ish, are women. They demanded to be let in. They are from all over the United States. We started in 1997 and a formal study of our org called “The Psychology of Cyberspace” finds nothing untoward in the mixed membership. I think we define ourselves as offbeat, enthusiastic, awake, self-deprecating, but not overly so, disrespectful of actual ageists…. We obviously do not plan to go gentle into that good night.

    I’m 75 and I’ll be damned if I’ll give up my ship.

    Good night, Chet. Good night, David.

  • Chuck Sellers

    Apart from the noun Geezer, used to describe a decrepit man, I was aware of the terms geezing and geeze pad used to descibe the act of injecting heroin and the place where addicts met to do so. If you were to walk into a geeze pad at any given time you would find numerous addicts there who were on the nod after having geezed. Prounced with a hard G – GEEZ.

  • Ricky Manders

    I am now in my 40′s, and grew up in London, and Geezer has always been used to describe a man, synonymously with bloke, fellow,chap, etc.. We would precede geezer with “old” if talking about an older man, but could proceed it with other things e.g. diamond, right, top, hard etc. I am not aware that it has (certainly not in my lifetime) ever fallen out of usage in this way. The American usage is not, therefore, the same as the London, England usage (I don’t know about other regions of the U.K., but my wife assures me that while growing up in Cheltenham, England, people used Geezer in the same way as Londoners)

  • Andy Waters

    Having come across the term in everyday life and encountered it in historical research it is clearly a centuries old term originating in London. Whatever the context, ‘Geezer’ always retains an element of respect, and is not an offensive insult. I think the origin may lie with the prominant ‘Gisor’ family of medieval London – Aldermen and senior figures in the city at the time. Several generations of Gisors ‘served’ London (and themselves! There was a definate feeling that the younger members of this family were not a patch on the first representative – the Alder Gisor.

  • Amie Hill

    During a period of time spent in folk-dance circles, I was led to believe that the “disguise” element of geezer originated with Morris Dancing (the actual origins of which are, I believe, shrouded in history). The “guiser”—always a crowd favorite— appeared in certain dances as a comic figure and trickster, dressed as an old man or old woman, or even half-and-half, and created choreographed “havoc” in the orderly dancing lines.

  • LMH

    Hi. You all sound like old geezers. I am young and fresh! Take that oldies! OH YA!

  • Chas///

    I think all of your “guesses” as to the origins of the word Geezer are imaginative but in error.
    My theory is this.
    In days of old (I don’t know how old, I was not there, although I am now approching Geezerhood). There was a popular saying: He’s as old as “Ghiza” which lead to the bastardization into the now modern usage He’s an old “Geezer”.
    There, see how simple that was.
    Chas///

  • Re “Geezer”–I have always grown up with the belief that “geezer” is an old maritime term from “Portugeeser”–a ship of dubious or unclear origins–which became converted into meaning anyone foreign or strange of whom no one is sure of their background or intentions. Thus “dodgy geezer” is in general use in the greater London area as is “black geezer” “young geezer” etc. It doesn’t mean someone old unless “old” precedes it. JohnDee

  • Gav

    Interesting theory about “Portugueezer” there. I was always at a bit of a loss as to where the colloquial London ‘Oi’ came from as well – some consider it Jewish in origin, but ‘oi’ is also a term of greeting for Portuguese speakers. Given the importance of the docks in London, it would not surprise me if this was the origin of that as well.

    • Re London imperative “Oi”

      More usefully spelled “Oy” as it is a shortened form of “oyez”

      From French -2nd person plural (lit) Hear!
      Colloquially ‘Listen!’

      Not from the Yiddish “OyVey!” ;-))_

      Adam

  • When we lived in South Africa, we found out that a Geezer was a Hot Water Heater. Our Geezer went out while we were there and we had to have it replaced.

  • RACHAEL

    IT STILL NEEDS SYNONYMS

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