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THE ETYMOLOGY OF JIZZ
The word 'jizz' has been part of the language of birding, in the
English-speaking nations, for some years. To quote some prominent
Australian examples, Pizzey's 1983 A Field Guide to the Birds of
Australia describes the Rose Robin Petroica rosea as having 'a
more flycatcher-like jizz' than other red-breasted robins, and reminds
us that the yellow robins have 'a characteristic "jizz" ... they typically
cling sideways low on a vertical trunk or vine ...' (p. 273). The
authoritative Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic
Birds (Marchant & Higgins 1990) describes the Intermediate Egret
Ardea intermedia as having a 'less stocky jizz' than a Cattle Egret
Ardea ibis (p. 1017). The term was also used in the 1984 Atlas of
Australian Birds where the authors referred to '...the essential
characteristics or "jizz" of [a] species' (Blakers, Davies & Reilly
1984, p. xxxviii).
So what, exactly, do we mean by the term 'jizz' and where does it
An article published in 1990 in the Newsletter of the Cumberland
Bird Observers Club states that:
Jizz is a relatively new addition to the terminology of bird
identification and recognition. It is one of the characteristics
... which enables a bird to be recognised instantly...
Examples are GANNET - appears large at sea, long neck
and wedge-shaped tail imparting distinctive 'pointed at both
ends' jizz (Dymond 1990).
Contrary to the view of many people that 'jizz' is a slang or jargon
term used exclusively and loosely by birders, or one which really
belongs in another world such as that of the military, jizz is found in
basic references, such as the Handbook referred to above and in
ornithological dictionaries. For example, A Dictionary of Birds by
Campbell and Lack (1985) defines jizz as: 'A combination of
characteristics which identify a living creature in the field, but which
may not be distinguished individually' (p. 313). The glossary in
Simpson and Day's (1993) Field Guide to the Birds of Australia
defines jizz as 'A word used by "twitchers" - avid birdwatchers - to
describe everything about a bird in one, all-embracing term; the
essence or "character" of a bird in the field' (p. 379).
The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989, p.
264) provides the following definition: 'The characteristic
impression given by an animal or plant', and this definition is carried
across to more readily accessible editions of the OED such as the
Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Where does 'jizz' come from?
Dymond (1990) suggested that:
'Jizz is a term derived from the fighter pilots' acronym, GIS
- General Impression and Shape...'.
Wallace (1994) had a different view, stating that it comes from the
WW2 acronym GIS which stood for 'General Identification System'.
Litwin (1994) went straight to the point, saying that:
... I thought 'jizz' was a contraction from 'just is'.
Danca (1994) came from a different angle altogether. He suggested
... comes from a corrupted shortening of the word 'gestalt'
mispronounced with a soft G as in 'jestalt'. The term jestalt
has been the common element in defining jizz in nearly all
the guesses that have appeared [in the 1994 Birdchat
That whole 'general impression of size and shape [or
whatever]' origin sounds just too neat. It feels like (and
probably is) a back-construction from someone who invented
words to go with what he thought was an acronym. Besides,
GISS would be pronounced 'jiss', not 'jizz' (or 'gizz'). Folks, I
think we have an urban legend here with *this* derivation. I
still vote for the 'jestalt' origins.
Principe (1994) points to support for the 'gestalt' origin. He reminds
us that Danca's view:
... is supported by Christopher Leahy in his book (The
Birdwatcher's Companion Bonanza Books, 1982). He says
'A distinctive physical "attitude", totally apart from any
specific field mark ... The origin of the term is uncertain;
perhaps a corruption of "gestalt"'.
('Gestalt' is a term used most commonly in psychology, meaning 'a
configuration or figure whose integration differs from the totality
obtained from summing the parts' (Wolman 1989, p. 146)).
In fact, as evidenced by contributions to the Internet discussion list
Birdchat in 1994 from which some of the above quotations are
taken, and from a number of personal conversations, the most
commonly accepted origin of the word jizz is, as Dymond suggests,
the Second World War acronym concerned with the identification of
aircraft, both friendly and enemy. Most commonly, however, jizz is
understood to have come not from GIS (as Dymond suggested) but
from GISS, a contraction of General Impression of Size and Shape.
This explanation is found throughout the birding literature.
Some birders seem convinced of this origin. Mackiernan (1994) is
one of these:
Nevertheless -- this from RAF person who is a birder --
'GIZZ' does come from
the 'general impression, shape and size' rule from aircraft
And I think the Brits tend to be pretty effective gizz (or jizz)
Kloot (1995) provides a fuller explanation of GISS:
During World War 2, pilots and their crew were briefed as to
how to swiftly identify various aircraft, both the enemy's, and
In combat there was not time to reach for, and consult a
manual, so images of planes were flashed onto a screen, and
the pilots and crew were required to instantly recognize their
features, contours and size; in fact, to gauge the 'General
Impression of Shape and Size' of every known aircraft. So,
General Impression of Shape and Size became 'GISS'.
And from 'GISS' came 'Jizz'.
In her article, Kloot acknowledges an English birding colleague as
the source of this information. I have contacted him and he
I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, but I'm afraid that I can
provide you with no new information regarding the origin of
the term. ...the explanation [which he gave to Kloot and she
published] is really no more than part of birding folklore and
gains more credence with each act of repetition (Smith 1995,
An approach to the Australian Department of Defence, Air Force
Office, Royal Australian Air Force Historical Records and
Information Services, was unsuccessful in locating any corroboration
of the use of the GISS acronym. A similar approach to the United
Kingdom Ministry of Defence's Air Historical Branch (RAF) met
with the same negative result.
On a personal note I, too, have always believed that jizz came from
the Second World War's GISS. Indeed, I have a vague recollection
that, as an Australian serviceman in the 1960s, I learned the term in
the context of aircraft recognition and only met it again when I came
to birding in more recent years. (Unfortunately this recollection is
On Smith's suggestion I turned to the 1990 book Birds by
Character: A Field Guide to Jizz Identification (Hume, 1990). It is
an excellent guide to the birds of Britain and Europe but neither
defines jizz nor discusses its etymology. The author (who is
associated with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and is
the editor of Birds) has indicated to me in correspondence that, in
his opinion, while the GISS idea sounds plausible, it is more likely to
Having reached this point in the etymological detective story you
may feel like giving up. Do not! Both Lack and Campbell's A
Dictionary of Birds (1985) and the OED (1989) provide a quite
different source for the origin of jizz. They refer us to a book by T.
A. Coward, published in London in 1922, titled Bird Haunts &
Nature Memories. This is what Coward wrote (as quoted in the
OED, p. 246; page numbers in the quotation are references to
A West Coast Irishman was familiar with the wild creatures
which dwelt on or visited his rocks and shores; at a glance he
could name them, usually correctly, but if asked how he
knew them would reply 'By their "jizz".' What is jizz?.. We
have not coined it, but how wide its use in Ireland is we
cannot say... Jizz may be applied to or possessed by any
animate and some inanimate objects, yet we cannot clearly
define it. A single character may supply it, or it may be the
combination of many (p. 141).
... Jizz, of course, is not confined to birds. The small
mammal and the plant alike have jizz (p. 143)
So, here we have it. Jizz long predates the Second World War but
was used in the early part of the century, at least on the West Coast
of Ireland, with the same meaning we now give to it in birding and
with the same meaning as that captured by the GISS acronym.
Two tasks remain. The first is to find out if GISS, General
Impression of Size and Shape, was in fact used in WW2. I have
nothing further to add on this topic; I have found no evidence that it
was. The second task is to find the origin of the West Coast
Irishman's word jizz.
The etymology of jizz
The OED (1989, p. 246) states that the etymology of jizz is
unknown. It points to the similarly-sounding and similarly-meaning
word guise, which it gives the meaning 'manner of carrying oneself;
behaviour, carriage, conduct, course of life'. It points out that guise
'is coincident in sense but the phonetic relationship remains
unexplained and the two words may therefore be unrelated'.
Before concluding, let me intrude just one more intriguing fact (or
clue?) into the puzzle. Partridge's (1984, p. 419) A Dictionary of
Slang and Unconventional English includes the word 'gizz', defining
A face: Scot.: C. 19. (EDD.)
Perhaps influenced by phiz, but certainly derived from guise
(a mask), of which it once formed a var[iant].
(Note: 'EDD' is Joseph Wright's 1898-1905 The English Dialect
Phiz (or phizz), according to Partridge (1984, p. 874), was an
Eighteenth Century jocular, colloquial abbreviation of 'physiognomy'
and meant a 'face; expression of face'.
We are left with a number of loose ends. One is the possibility of
(a) the Nineteenth Century Scottish word 'gizz' (a face);
(b) the Eighteenth Century word 'phiz' or 'phizz' (face,
expression of face);
(c) Coward's West Coast Irishman's 'jizz' (the characteristic
impression given by an animal or plant); and, perhaps
(d) gestalt, the German word used in contemporary English-
language psychology with the meaning that the whole is
different from the sum of the parts.
The lack of resolution of this puzzle provides a challenge to readers
to take the etymological detective work somewhat further.
Blakers, M., Davies, S. & Reilly, P. (1984) Atlas of Australian
Birds, Melbourne Univ. Press, Melbourne.
Campbell, B. & Lack, E. (eds) (1985) A Dictionary of Birds,
Coward, T. (1922) Bird Haunts & Nature Memories, London, np.
Danca, R. (15 November 1994) Jizz =.'Gestalt'?, BirdChat [Online],
available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
Dymond, T. (1990) Newsletter, Cumberland Bird Observers Club,
vol.11, no. 5, p. 9.
Hume, R. (1990) Birds by Character: A Field Guide to Jizz
Identification, Papermac, London.
Kloot, T. (1995) 'The "Jizz" of a Bird', The Bird Observer, no. 750,
Litwin, N. (13 November 1994) Re: jizz, BirdChat [Online],
available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
Mackiernan, G. (15 November 1994) Re: Jizz = "Gestalt"?,
BirdChat [Online], available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
Marchant, S. & Higgins, P. (1990) Handbook of Australian, New
Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Vol. 1, OUP, Melbourne.
Oxford English Dictionary (1989), second edition, Clarenden Press,
Partridge, E. (1984) A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional
English, eighth edn, ed. Paul Beale, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
Pizzey, G. (1983) A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Collins,
Principe, B. (15 November 1994) Re: Jizz = "Gestalt"?, BirdChat
[Online], available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
Simpson, K. & Day, N. (1993) Field Guide to the Birds of
Australia, Viking O'Neil, Ringwood.
Wallace, J. (11 November 1994) Re: jizz, BirdChat [Online],
available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
Wolman, B. (ed.) (1989) Dictionary of Behavioral Science, second
edition, Academic Press, San Diego.
David McDonald Voice: +61-6-231 8904 (home)
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