Dear Word Detective: I was recently re-reading one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, “The League of Frightened Men,” and came across the expression “ritz me out,” which Archie Goodwin uses when he suspects that he’s about to get the bum’s rush. I see that you’ve covered “the bum’s rush” before, but I can’t find “ritz me out.” Can you help? — Ned Danieley.
To the nines.
Certainly. Seeing the word “ritz” immediately reminds of what is possibly my absolute favorite song of all time, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin. I’ll hear some version of this song on the radio and spend the next week with it running through my head, but (unlike when the song is something like “My Sharona”) it doesn’t bother me at all. The classic Fred Astaire version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from the 1946 film Blue Skies can been seen on YouTube, as can my second-favorite version, from Young Frankenstein. Incidentally, when I say I hear Puttin’ on the Ritz on the radio, I mean on the wonderful internet radio station Radio Dismuke, which plays only popular music from the 1920s and 30s.
That’s all relevant to your question because it indicates that when Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1929, “ritz” was already firmly established as a synonym for “fashionable style” and “finery.” “Ritz” is an eponym, a word that originated as a proper noun, often the name of a person. The person who put “ritz” in our language was Cesar Ritz (1850-1918), a Swiss-born hotelier who lent his own name to his luxurious hotels in London, Paris, New York and other great cities.
So fancy and exclusive were the Ritz hotels that by 1910 “Ritz” had become popular shorthand for a large and fancy abode, often used in a negative sense to describe accommodations that were anything but luxurious (“Lousy as the room was, I was damn’ glad to have it. … ‘It isn’t the Ritz,’ I said. ‘But we got nowhere else to go,’” 1960). “Ritz” also became an adjective, applied to anything that projected a sense of luxury and fashionable refinement (“Creating charming country house suites with prints, quilting, Roman blinds, pretty colours, real Ritz comfort.” Vogue, 1978). A few years later, “to put on the ritz” arrived as a popular phrase meaning both “to dress up in stylish and fancy clothes” and “to assume an air of superiority” (“If you mention some really worth while novel … they think you’re trying to put on the Ritz,” Ring Lardner, 1926).
That second sense of “put on the ritz,” by 1911, gave us “ritz” as a transitive verb meaning “to behave haughtily towards someone, to snub,” which is the sense you encountered in Rex Stout’s mystery. “Snubbing,” of course, can take a range of forms, from turning a cold shoulder at the punchbowl to, at the other end of the social scale, literally tossing the “snubbee” into the street, making “ritzing” the equivalent of the old “bum’s rush.” It sounds as if Archie Goodwin suspected he was about to receive something close to that rough treatment.
Interestingly, “ritz” as a verb was also used in one of the most famous detective novels ever written, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (“You sent for me. I don’t mind you ritzing me,” 1939). I don’t happen to have my copy handy, but my sense is that Chandler used it in the sense of “haughtily dismiss.”