. . . beezark

. . .

In Search of Beezark

Into Me and My Gal's 19 days of shooting and 79 minutes of footage Raoul Walsh and team crammed comedy, romance, suspense, melodrama, sex both obsessive and healthy, a mute quadraplegic war vet, a lot of drinking, a cafe straight out of Thimble Theater, and a startlingly ahead-of-its-time caper sequence, and still maintained a relaxed keep-the-cameras-rolling kind of mood.

But that's not the point. The point is that Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett keep using the word "beezark" (or "beezok") the same way they use "dope", as a roughneck endearment.

They really love that word. It's kind of infectious.

And, according to pre-Code ace Juliet Clark, in 1933's The Mayor of Hell, Jimmy Cagney addresses a reform school guard as "Ya screw... ya beezok" (or "beezark").

The "beezark" spelling is fairly well attested on the web:

It doesn't appear, however, in the OED or Webster's or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, or in any of the several dozen reference works at UC Berkeley except one goddamned thesaurus where it's listed bare-assed as a "Term of disparagement", or in the archives of American Speech.

The last time I asked my readers for slang origins, it worked out pretty well. (I found the origin myself, but that's still pretty well.) This time the challenge is so great that I feel compelled to ask non-readers even. Any idea where this comes from?


beezark, n. : from the Old Norse 'baresark' or 'berserker'; one who is sufficiently incensed in battle to remove his upper garment (the sark or bearnie) and run amuck. Hence any lunatical or foolish fellow, ne'er-do-well, nincompoop or ragamuffin.

Thanks, Anon, our source for all good things. As a reader of Celtic and Icelandic sagas and a resident of Berkeley, that coincidence came to my mind as well. But "ber" to "bee" seemed a wide unattested leap to take across centuries of intervening North American immigrations, and so I didn't trust my instincts. Do you have a reason to? I'm just folk, and you know how people talk about folk etymology.

UPDATE: Language Hat, that wonderful wonderful Hat, to the rescue:

You may be having problems because you're spelling it "wrong" (though of course the spelling of slang terms isn't exactly set in stone); my reference books have it as "bezark." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says:

bezark [orig. unkn.] an odd or contemptible man or woman. ca1925 in D. Runyon Poems for Men 15: This bezark... was once so quiet that we called him Silent Sam. 1929 in R.E. Howard Book 64: At this moment some bezark came barging up to our table and... leaned over and leered engagingly at my girl. Ibid. 78: Add to this the fact that he frequently shoved me against the wall, and you can get an idea what kind of a bezark I was fighting. 1932 AS (June) 329: Bezark -- a person [at Johns Hopkins Univ.]. 1942-49 Goldin et al. DAUL 259: Don't crack to that bezark (girl) of yours about touches (robberies).

(You can read an excerpt of the Robert E. Howard story here.)

And Cassell says:

bezark n. [1920s-40s] (US) an eccentric or unpleasant person. [? SE berserk]

I checked "beezark", I checked "beezok", I checked "bizok", but, dang, I must not have checked "bezark".

I mentioned this to one of your non-readers this afternoon, and he said they don't like it when you talk about them. He said they had a file, some charts, a graph or two. That it came up at meetings. And that's all he'd say about it.

How irksome.

Cobra Libre writes:

I don't actually have anything useful to add to "In Search of Beezark," but, by happy coincidence, my nighttime reading has recently taken a detour into Icelandic sagas, and so last night I opened up my new used copy of "Egil's Saga" to read:

"There was a man called Ulf Bjalfason. His mother was Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the Fearless, and she was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-Troll of Hrafnista, father of Ketil Trout. Ulf was so big and powerful that there was no one to match him. As a young man he used to go off on viking trips looking for plunder, and his partner in these was a man of good family called Berle-Kari, strong and full of courage. He was a berserk."

I'd like that last sentence on my tombstone, but I'm far too shy to run around amuck shirtless.

Me, I'd like the second sentence on my tombstone.

In fact, I'd like so many things on my tombstone, I may have to die more than once. Luckily, I'm a coward!

I happened to be re-reading 'The Thirteen Gun Salute' by Patick O'Brian just before checking in here, and there was an amusing (short) exchange between Jack and Stephen on the subject of 'running amock' 'or amuck?', Jack wonders; the subject comes up because of a couple of beserkers in Malaya who are, well, running amok, cutting people up. 'What a fellow you are, Stephen!' - Renfrew

UPDATE: In June 2005, the American Dialect Society Mailing List treated the subject. One poster noted many instances of "Bezark" as a surname. I'd noticed that myself, guessing that it's a corruption of the even more common family name "Bizok". And, as I had, he wondered whether the slang term might be a derogatory generalization. No evidence so far, though.

On firmer ground, Ben Zimmer moves the word's first printed attestation back to May 25, 1919:

"THE BUGS have no use for the beezark who carries a picture of himself in the back of his watch. It's a crippled loving cup that only has one handle." - "Two and Three: Putting the Next One Over" by Bugs Baer, Atlanta Constitution

Zimmer cited some more examples from Baer's column, and asked "Did Baer coin it, or just popularize it?"

UPDATE: A year later, and reader john l adds:

I stumbled across your reference to Thomas Thursday and the use of the word "beezark." Thursday used this term frequently in his humorous pulp stories. The first instance I know of occurs in "Missed in Missouri" (Top-Notch Magazine, May 15, 1920): "We put half of the side show on the bally doing all kinds of stunts, but didnít succeed in getting more than five beezarks to squander a dime." "Beezark" is one of many comic invectives he employed, e.g. yamneck, yapbean, dilbo, boobist, hickwah, etc. Thursday's publishing record is thin prior to 1920, but there's a remote chance he predates your 1919 refs, but it wouldn't be by much.

UPDATE 2010-10-21 : Terence O'Connell adds:

Another movie instance, which started my search: near the end of Sailorís Luck, a 1933 Raoul Walsh movie, James Dunn is quarreling with his girl friend Sally Eilers, whom he suspects of infidelity, and says something that sounds like "All you beezoks are alike."

UPDATE 2012-05-26 : Justin Patton adds (much to my embarrassment, since I bought the source text back in the 1980s):

Stumbled across “Beezark” in a Thimble Theater strip from October 12, 1929, and when looking it up online I found your site. Popeye and Castor Oyl are scammed into buying a “brass mine” in the Beezark Mountains, and then travel there to find that it doesn’t exist. The Beezark Mountains, or Beezark Center as it is later referred to over the next few months in the strip, are the primary location of the story arc that lasts until 1930, and are referenced several times. The residents of the Beezark area seem to be poor, naïve, farmers with large numbers or children, and many of them are represented sporting long beards and of advanced age (the police officer, fire chief, etc.). It seemed as though they might have been roughly based on residents of the Ozark Mountain area of the time.

October 12, 1929 – “Popeye and myself are going down to the Beezark Mountains and locate our brass mine.” – Castor Oyl

February 13, 1930 – “It happened about a month ago – I was strolling along the beach near Beezark Center in America.” – Fanny Foster

There are many other references between these two and afterwards, including a misspelling at one point of “Bezark”.


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