“Evil ferret king,” however, is quite believable.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a young sprog, I was a great fan of Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, and some of the characters frequently used the word “fizzer,” which seemed to designate some kind of military discipline. I haven’t been able to find a clear definition for it anywhere, nor have I been able to illuminate the mystery of its origin. So, please relieve my mind. What is a “fizzer”? — Elizabeth Lightwood.

Mousies and bunnies and hedgehogs, oh my! To be honest, I had never heard of Brian Jacques until I read your question, but I have since learned that he is a very popular UK children’s author whose stories are set in the English countryside and populated by a wide range of anthropomorphic critters. I’ve always been a sucker for talking hedgehogs, but, judging by the publisher’s summaries (e.g., “Enslaved by the evil ferret King Agarnu of Riftgard, and his cruel daughter, Kurda, the brave squirrelmaid Triss plans a daring escape by sea”), I think I’ll have to pass on these books. I read that passage an hour ago and I’m still trying to get the image of a squirrel in a dress in a rowboat out of my mind.

Before we proceed, I am legally required to explain that “sprog” is British slang for a young child. “Sprog” first appeared as British armed services slang for a new recruit during World War II, and appears to be rooted in the old English dialect word “sprag,” which meant both “a lively young fellow” and “a young salmon.” Unfortunately, no one knows the origins of “sprag.”

“Fizzer” in its most basic sense means “something that fizzes,” the word “fizz” being an “echoic” word meant to duplicate the sound of something hissing and sputtering. As slang, “fizz” most often figuratively invokes either effervescing (“sparkling”) drinks such as champagne or firecrackers that fail to explode (and only “fizz”). The “effervescent” or “sparkling” sense of “fizz” produced “fizzer” as slang for “anything excellent or first-rate” in the mid 19th century (“If the mare was such a fizzer why did you sell her?” 1866), as well as “fizzer” as a term for a fast ball in the game of cricket.

The use of “fizzer” as British military slang meaning “roster of men to be disciplined” is a small mystery. The great British etymologist of slang Eric Partridge suggested that it may have come from the earlier use of “fizzer” to mean “military parade ground,” a usage which may have referred to the need for troops to practice their marching drills until they were perfect and “fizzed.” You’ll notice that there are two “mays” in that sentence, but it seems plausible to me.

Whatever the logic of terming a parade ground a “fizzer,” the use of the word to mean “punishment list” is clear. One of the most common methods of disciplining soldiers is to force them to practice marching drills for hours on end. So to be “put on the fizzer” meant that you were in trouble and probably in for a hard time (“I got back after … twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” T.E. Lawrence, 1935).

According to Partridge, the phrase “on the fizzer” eventually percolated out of the armed services and was used in civilian life to mean “in trouble with the boss,” but it doesn’t seem to be very common.

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