You walk into your favorite coffee shop. You greet the familiar barista, who knows your daily order. You say “Hi, I’ll have the”—wait, I can’t figure out how to write the next word. You know, “the usual,” but shorter. Hip! Casual! I’ll have the … uzhe. I mean, the yoozh. The youj?!
Why does this shortened form of usual, which rolls off the tongue when it’s spoken, cause so much confusion when we try to write it down? When I offered my Twitter followers 32 different options for spelling the word, nobody was fully satisfied with any of them. Youge to rhyme with rouge? Yusz as if it’s Polish? Usjhe in a desperate hope that some letter, somewhere, would cue the appropriate sound? The only thing everyone could agree on was that all of them felt weird.
Our confusion about how to spell uzh/yooje/ujhe reveals some of the breaking points between English spelling and pronunciation. Fluent speakers and writers of English normally take the connection between letters and sounds for granted, especially for a common word like usual. When we see this connection fall apart, it can be disorienting—a clear syrup transformed into a shattered toffee by the presence of one stray crystal. But in dissolving the links between spelling and pronunciation, we can learn about an eternal tension between the most elegant way of writing words down and the most elegant way of saying them.
In the puzzle of yuzh/uge/euge, there are two main pieces. The first is that the letter u has several pronunciations in English. The initial one in usual involves an unwritten y sound before the oo part: yoo-shoo-al. Other u’s at the beginning of words might sound like the one in untie, or the one in umlaut. Although this irregularity bedevils the schoolchild and the English-language learner, if you’re a fluent enough English reader to be in the middle of this article (hello!), you’ve probably learned to take it for granted by now—at least for familiar words. But as soon as we encounter an unfamiliar word, our brains run smack into the inconsistencies of English spelling again.
The second puzzle of shortening usual is even more serious than the first: The sound represented by the letter s in this particular word isn’t pronounced like any of the s’s in Sesame Street. Rather, it’s influenced by the sound that comes after it. You might have noticed that usual has not one but two instances of the letter u—and both of them, it turns out, begin with an invisible y sound. That is, if we pronounce usual incredibly carefully, as if we’re presenters on Sesame Street, we say: yoo-syoo-al.
But most of the time, we don’t speak that formally. Rather, we compress things for efficiency, sometimes over generations, so that a word like sure (which was once pronounced more like syoor), is now only ever pronounced as if it begins with sh. Sounds like the y in you and the i in pizza are produced at the palate, that rounded hard bit toward the back on the roof of your mouth, where your tongue curves up. And when certain consonants appear before y, i, or ee sounds, they can get pulled toward that part of the mouth too. Thus we get dontcha and wouldja for don’t you and would you, and gray-shuss (gracious) while grace still has the earlier s sound—and, to take my linguistically favorite business name, a restaurant in Queens called Jeet Jet? (short for: “Did you eat yet?”).
Linguists call this process palatalization, and it’s part of a general tendency for neighboring sounds to become more similar to each other. The same way the movements of an artisan become fluid and economical with practice, producing the exact degree of force necessary to shape a piece of clay, we can get very efficient at playing the finely tuned instrument of our vocal apparatus. Rather than jerking between phonemes like a kid sounding out words, we smoothly transition from one sound to the next by making them subtly more similar. But we’re not always conscious of these tiny adjustments, and we don’t always write them down. (I recognize the unfortunate irony in trying to explain how writing is an incomplete picture of speech using writing itself as a medium, so if you want to hear some demos in audio form, this podcast episode may help.)
Palatalization explains why, instead of yoo-syoo-al, you might hear someone say yoo-shoo-al in slow or careful speech. But the most typical pronunciation of usual involves a second linguistic transformation. To understand it, we need to talk about the vocal cords, the mucous membranes in your throat that vibrate when you say vowels and certain consonants (put your hand on your throat while saying zzz and feel it buzz!), not including the sh sound. Sometimes, when a nonvibrating sound like sh is found in between two vibrating sounds, we just keep our vocal cords switched on the whole time for the sake of efficiency, such as when water is pronounced wadder.
In the case of usual, adding vocal-cord vibrations to sh produces a sound for which English has no single agreed-upon spelling. It’s the second g in garage, and both uses of zh in zhuzh (as in, zhuzh that outfit up a bit); let’s call it zh for now. Zh is a sound that has a weird status in English spelling. It’s either written s because it’s in a word that’s undergone palatalization—s becoming sh or z, then turning into zh, as in usual or Asia or occasion—or it inherits another language’s spelling conventions when it’s in a word that’s been borrowed from a place where the sound is more common, especially French loanwords like rouge and déjà vu. (Zhuzh, with its zhuzhed-up double-zh spelling, is likely from Polari or Romani.)
Zh isn’t necessarily a word-shortening deal breaker. Business casual can more or less straightforwardly get clipped down to biz cazh. You might have to think for an extra half second, but this abbreviation preserves enough of the letters in the original phrase to serve as a cue to the not-entirely-obvious pronunciation of zh. But the clipped version of usual is a perfect storm: a u with an unwritten y sound followed by an s that’s been transformed into a zh by an unwritten y sound in front of a u that’s now deleted.
How can we English writers and readers resolve these spelling issues? In my Twitter bracket, I expected an option that was maximally clear about pronunciation to win, one that replaced that confusing initial u with a more obvious yoo, thus potentially dragging a less obvious zh or j along with it. But while yoozh made it all the way to the final (beating out uzh), it lost in the end to uzhe.
My Twitter poll is by no means a scientific study, but I still think the results can offer some valuable insight. Respondents explained that they found spellings with u to be less confusing because that spelling kept the initial letter in common with usual—as long as a silent e was there at the end to cue the pronunciation of the u away from the sound in untie. I find this resolution elegant in its clunkiness: Solving the problem of two unwritten sounds by writing a further, unpronounced letter is a truly Englishy solution.
The ad hoc, incomplete answer to the question of how to spell uzhe (or yoozh, or yooj …) reminds us that English—like any natural language—wasn’t designed from the top down by a single creator, the way a book is written in a unified authorial voice. Rather, language is organic and decentralized, a network where patterns emerge from the many ways that each of us choose whom we want to talk with and how to talk with them. At their best, dictionaries and other reference materials can be helpful maps to a territory we’re all co-creating every time we pick one word over another.
I started this investigation as a fan of yoozh, but I’ve found myself convinced by the results of my own poll, so I’ve decided to switch to the most popular spelling. If enough people decide to do likewise, maybe eventually it’ll become the uzhe.