The Paths of ‘Geezer’

Something that’s puzzled me about the speech of young British co-workers is the term ‘geezer.’  In America, this word refers, impolitely, to an elderly man.  More accurately, I’d say it’s used more in theory than practice: it’s one of those slang words that everyone understands but is rather archaic-sounding in contemporary language. I hear ‘geezer’ used in movies about insolent teenagers in the 1950’s, but rarely on the lips of my peers.

Regardless, ‘geezer’ means something different in British dialects, where it’s arguably a term of affection directed toward younger people. I say ‘arguably’ because it’s hard to pin down a solid definition of British ‘geezer.’ I’ve heard it equated with ‘bloke,’ but there are shades of meaning here that elude me. The fairly British-centric Collins English dictionary defines the word simply as ‘a man.’  But as with dude, lad, and mate, I doubt this is the whole story.

So how did this word mean such different things in the two dialects? Most dictionaries state that ‘geezer’ is a variation of the rather archaic ‘guiser,’ which refers to a masked or costumed reveler (or ‘mummer’). The word seems linked to the more recognizable French-derived ‘guise.’ (You’ll note a similar association with costumes and masks in the related term ‘disguise.’)

How ‘guiser’ (or rather, its offspring) came to mean both ‘old man’ and ‘bloke’ seems at first obscure, until one sees the natural evolution of the term. Random House dictionary offers a definition of ‘geezer’ that serves as something of a ‘missing link:’ an odd or eccentric man.

It seems the strangeness and exoticism of masked celebration remained part of the word in this stage of its development. But the two contemporary definitions on each side of the Atlantic are still somewhat puzzling. The ‘eccentricity’ of an old man seems to have been the impetus for the American version. But how did the word became a term of fraternal endearment in the UK?

Any other ideas how British ‘geezer’ came to be?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to The Paths of ‘Geezer’

  1. lynneguist says:

    This might also be of interest…
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/06/geezers.html

    Though not very etymologically informative!

    • trawicks says:

      Although informative in terms of meaning. Thanks! It definitely has an East London ring to it,btw (the diphthongized ‘ee’ followed by the open ‘er’ makes the word sound very recognizably Cockney).

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    As an aside, ‘geezer’ is how the Brits pronounce ‘geyser’.

  3. David G Epstein says:

    “Geezer” has both phonetic and orthographic similarity to “wheezer,” and a morphemic parallel with “codger,” “duffer,” and “gaffer.”

    I can’t think of a male equivalent of “crone,” though.

  4. dw says:

    How ‘guiser’ (or rather, its offspring) came to mean both ‘old man’ and ‘bloke’ seems at first obscure, until one sees the natural evolution of the term. Random House dictionary offers a definition of ‘geezer’ that serves as something of a ‘missing link:’ an odd or eccentric man.

    Compare the semantic evolution of “guy”, from an effigy of Guy Fawkes to its current meaning.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s interesting that words related to revelry, merriment, and costumes seem to produce unlikely etymological offspring, particularly in reference to indefinite or unnamed people. Even the word ‘person,’ which derives from a Latin word meaning ‘mask.’

  5. Luke says:

    “Geezers need excitement. If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence. Common sense. Simple common sense.” -“Geezers need excitement”, The Streets

    This whole album from the late 90s (The Streets, “Original Pirate Material”), spoken in a sort of Estuary English if not straight Cockney( I’m an American so take my analysis with a grain of salt), uses the term “geezer” almost constantly, and strikes me as being used very similarly to the American hiphop use of “nigga” or “niggaz”-as an in-group term referencing “guys like you, who are cool.”