5

Unusual orthography

When you visit your local diner, or favorite bar, and the server wants to know if you’d like your standard order, the thing you always get, they’ll often inquire, in shorthand:

The us[ual]?

It sounds just like the first syllable in the full word, ususal. I believe the IPA for it would be /juːʒ/.

If it’s still unclear what word I mean, this is what Wiktionary has to say:

Clipping of usual, commonly respelled in writing to avoid confusion with us. Compare the written abbreviation usu. or usu (“usual, usually”).

The usual suspects

I not infrequently want to use this word in informal written contexts (e.g. text messages to friends), and I would like a way to spell it that would be recognizable without much headscratching or mental reverse engineering of my intent. To be a fluid as possible as part of the prose.

Often, I mull two principle possibilities:

  • My first instinct is us (clipping the spelling as the vocalization clips the sound), but as the Wiktionary quote above observes, this creates a trap: a risk of confusion with us (as opposed to them).
  • And to my mind, usu stands better as a substitute or proper abbreviation for the full word usual, instead of this other word, because it doesn’t convey the proper sound (in particular the “z” / ʒ).

Wiktionary goes on to state that there is “no fixed spelling”, and offers several possible candidates:

(no fixed spelling) ush, ushe, uzh, yooj, yoozh, yoozhe, youzh, youzhe, yuzh, yuzhe

But none of these carry attestations or frequency analyses. A good friend of mine suggested the us’, but while it appeals to me, it suffers the same flaws.

So, what are you having?

So, is there a spelling which enjoys more authority, greater currency, a longer history, or some other reason to prefer it to other candidates?

Answers which draw upon citation to authorities (e.g. reliable dictionaries which take a more prescriptive stance, corpora data, etc), are strongly preferred.

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  • 5
    I’m amazed—I’ve never heard this. Are these servers non-native speakers?
    – Xanne
    Dec 3, 2021 at 0:09
  • 1
    @Xanne Really? Never? No. All native speakers. I use it and the only language I speak is English. It’s very common here (the US). Where are you from?
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 3, 2021 at 0:10
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    @Xanne Haha! I’m from NYC, born and raised, but I’ve seen this word used without a flinch in any number of TV shows and movies.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 3, 2021 at 0:25
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    I have seen "uzh" in closed captions on American television, and it kind of threw me off phonetically. Haven't found an alternative that doesn't. How authoritative is CC usage for you?
    – livresque
    Dec 3, 2021 at 2:02
  • 1
    Couldn’t you just write it like you say it and type yuʒ? Or would you have to get your hands on one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s zhuzhed-up handcomps first? Jeesh!
    – tchrist
    Dec 3, 2021 at 2:44

3 Answers 3

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According to the Citations page of the Wictionary entry for uzhe that Dan Bron refers to, the earliest reported spelling to appear in print was ush:

ush 1914, G. B. Stern, See-Saw, London: Hutchinson & Co., published 1931, page 208:

“So long, Nap! Come over the road after your turn to-morrow, as per ush.”

But despite that spelling's lengthy head start, the fall of the house of ush was probably inevitable, given its awkward approximation of most people's pronunciation of the first syllable of usual.

The next four spellings (chronologically) that Wiktionary reports are from 1997 and 1998, are ushe, yooj (three occurrences in 1997, although I reproduce only the first below), uzh, and yoozh, as follows:

1997, Bruce LaBruce, The Reluctant Pornographer, Gutter Press, page 33:

Kitty and Anouk start making out on the pool table as per ushe until a girl comes over and punches Kitty in the nose for spilling her drink on the green velvet.

yooj 1997 September 7, BTH, “ASSC: Chez Paree SF Highlights, 09/05/97”, in alt.sex.strip-clubs, Usenet‎:

1015pm, dinnertime. P&Ps. Vissi already ate. IRL comes to keep me company. Fave waitress Bridget gets me "the yooj" (my usual). IRL does the "Jailhouse Special" (bread and water only).

uzh 1998 August 29, Evil Prince, “wRASP...makes you go "Hmmmmm......"”, in rec.models.rockets, Usenet‎:

I have a LOC Graduator with a 38mm motor mount that weighs 16.25 oz. unladen (chute, Nomex, shock cord, the uzh...) According to wRASP, it would fly 2576 ft with an H220 at 400' base alt. at 72F with a BP of 29.92.

yoozh 1998 September 3, infamous, “ASSC: CP 8/29/98”, in alt.sex.strip-clubs, Usenet‎:

Good thing the kitchen didn't close until 10:30, since we got there about five after. Bubba had his 'yoozh', and I had spaghetti. We spent half the meal talking about the History of the ASS-C World, and the other half talking good ol' fashioned geek talk.

The fact that these early spellings didn't become standard, despite their relatively early start dates is actually a strike against them, in my opinion: orthography isn't like Linnean genus/species designations in that regard. Notably, yooj, which had a flurry of appearances in 1997, is a fairly close approximation to the way many people in southeast Texas pronounce huge, making it more ambiguous than some of the alternative spellings.

Judging from the header spelling that Wiktionary uses, that source seems to prefer uzhe, which it supports with citations from as early as 2007. But that preference is by no means universal. Marielle Wakim, "Here Are the Correct Spellings of the Most Important Abbreviated Words We All Text," in LA Magazine (June 8, 2016) plumps for yoosj:

Usual

YES: Yoosj

NO: Yoozh, ush, usj, yousche, ushe, ouge, youghe (GTFO with all of these).

Possibly the most divisive word in the history of abbreves, let us all agree that the answer is yoosj. I acknowledge that picking a winner here is like picking the lesser of eight evils (maybe more, because if one twisted sicko thinks “ouge” is a great stand-in, who knows how many other bastardizations there are). I know, I know—none of the options feel great. Neither does getting my eyebrows waxed, but I do it because I’m half-Greek and half-Lebanese, and so there is no other option. Such is the case with yoosj. Am I going to win the fictional International Phonetic Alphabet spelling bee with that horrid assemblage of letters? Absolutely not—the noise we crave, that “dsj” sound, is the Prince of fricative vocalizations: it is represented in the IPA by a symbol (ʒ), because in the English alphabet it requires an army of helpful consonants (as in “measure” or “beige”). Which means any dream you may have of abbreviating “usual” with elegance and grace is dead. Which means yoosj.

To which I can't help responding, "Bologna."

A Reddit linguistics forum discussion posted ten years ago has drawn 22 comments, of which the highest-voted responses in descending order are [juʒ] (five votes), /juʒ/ [ju:ʒ] (five votes), yewj (four votes), uzh (four votes), yoozh (three votes), usu (two votes), and us (one vote)

So, basically, no realistically usable winner there.

Merriam-Webster Online devotes an annoyingly undated Usage Notes page to the question at "I'll Have the Us(ual): Shortening 'usual': easy to say, hard to spell," but its conclusion—after giving a fair amount of space to yoozh (used by Joe Marusalk in 2008 and by William Safire in 2009), uzhe (used by Mrc Mohan in 2009), and yuzh (used by Paul Turner in 2017)—is essentially "none [or any] of the above":

Welp, we're afraid that the answer is that there is no established shortened form of usual, which means English speakers are really on their own. Our best advice is to use the form that you think best communicates your intended meaning.

Thank you very much indeed for that, MW.

Not to be outdone by Merriam-Webster, I recommend starting by weeding out short forms that aren't typable on a standard keyboard or touchpad, or that overlap ambiguously with common pronunciations of other words. That disqualifies [juʒ], /juʒ/ [ju:ʒ], us, yooj, yewj, and several others. Then I would reject spellings that don't seem especially close to the sound to be approximated (ush, ouge, yousche, youghe, etc.). Then, and only then, I would review the remaining options and follow MW's sage advice to "use the form that you think best communicates your intended meaning."

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  • The fall of the house of ush! Love that you snuck that one in. Great scholarship and research, per uzhe. Thank you.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 3, 2021 at 20:07
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    If I saw ush in writing, my brain would rhyme it with mush.
    – shoover
    Dec 3, 2021 at 20:19
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    @shoover And just which mush might that be, eh? Do you mean the kind of mush that rhymes with push and bush and whoosh and tush? OR do you mean the kind of mush that rhymes with hush and rush and brush and crush? OR is your dialect one that never went through the FOOT–STRUT split and so you have the “good foot” vowel in every single one of those words I just mentioned? OR do you mean some new kind of mush that rhymes with mouche and douche and louche? :)
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2021 at 3:40
  • @tchrist Busted! I mean the noun kind of mush that reminds me of oatmeal, rhyming with hush and rush, not the verb kind of mush that means to squish together. Either way, I would never start ush with a y-consonant or voice the sh.
    – shoover
    Dec 4, 2021 at 5:54
  • "To which I can't help responding, "Bologna."" Is the misspelling intentional? Dec 4, 2021 at 19:57
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I'm not sure one will find authoritative references for this yet. Google ngram results are totally misleading, all false positives (typos, exercises in novel spelling, proper nouns) as far as I've checked. And only 8 000 Google hits for "the uze", many containing non-standard grammar, but:

uze

Short for "usual." Indicates a "ho-hum" attitude and a tonal sense of comfort with the person with whom you are speaking.

  • "What's going on in your life?"
  • "You know, the uze."

Urban Dictionary; Andy{!}; 2004

I suppose the caveats apply in many restaurants, though one would expect more of a 'might I recommend chef's special, sir' attitude at the Ritz.

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  • Ah yes, the renowned lexicographer Andy of UrbanDictionary. Should have thought to consult him first! Kidding aside, I do like this spelling and I really appreciate you doing the legwork of analyzing nGrams on this beast, that’s a real Herculean labor. +1.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 3, 2021 at 14:25
  • You get some gems, especially in the earlier-year results. I assume that the River Uze is the Ooze (Great or perhaps Little). Dec 3, 2021 at 15:34
  • 1
    I'm afraid the Great Ooze is probably not a river one would really want to see.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 3, 2021 at 15:46
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The "rules" of English spelling, even including the "rules" of eye dialect (shoulda, shouldna, wanna, gotta, lotta, gonna, hafta, etc.), don't deal equably with actual speech as pronounced. So in fact there's no good eye dialect spelling that will guarantee it'll be read as /juːʒ/ (UK; USA is /yuʒ/). There are three reasons why not.

First, there's the /y/ (American from now on) in front of /u/. You can't guarantee by any spelling that it'll show up for any word spelled starting with a U. Consider the phrase use up, for instance.

Then there's the fact that (especially in short words), stressed U is normally pronounced schwa, as in up or funny. To get the /u/ vowel, normally OO is used, or the spelling is U with a silent E after a consonant, but that wouldn't work here, because of the final consonant.

Finally, there's the fact that there's no standard spelling for /ʒ/ in English. It occurs in foreign words like garage and also in combining /z/ with /y/, as in How's your dad?, which has a /ʒ/ instead of /zy/ in How's your.

So, while people have tried, there just isnt gonna be a standard way to spell it, any more than there is for the past tense of used to.

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    If you didn't care about it being standard, I'd go for "yoozh", which is at least unambiguous. Dec 3, 2021 at 17:48
  • Thanks once again for the scholarship. Yeah, that spelling is near top of my list for that reason, my issue is it’ll pull people out of flow when reading; unambiguous but jarring.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 3, 2021 at 19:46
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    Check out the coda clusters and rimes Spradlin reports in table 9 of “OMG the Word-final Alveopalatals are Cray-cray Prev(alent): The Morphophonology of Totes Constructions in English”, University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol 22, Iss 1, Article 30, including deluj, confuzh, uzh, cazh, plej, sosh, promosh, precosh, negosh, losh, grosh, fosh, ferosh, emosh, atrosh, vacash, relaish, PlayStaish, paish, fellaish, celebraish, nostalj, strange rimes allegedly licensed by consonantal reassociation across syllable boundaries.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2021 at 1:59
  • Gosh, but her gauche uses of atrosh and ferosh and such really don’t scream /o/ to me! I think that’s because gosh is normal English but gauche is only an unassimilated French loanword that leaves us with no choice but to retain the French spelling because English has no way to spell it that lets people know what word was said. This seems to prove your point, or at least strengthen it.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2021 at 2:10

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