The Nose knew.
Dear Word Detective: Any idea where the word “schnozzola” originated? It sounds vaguely Italianate, and is, of course, forever linked with Jimmy Durante, but where did he get it to begin with? I learned the word (and still use it when it’s warranted, which is far too little these days) during my childhood in Manhattan in the 1940s, and suspect it isn’t as prevalent at it once was. Any ideas out there? — Robert
That’s a great question, at least in part because it contains the magic words “Manhattan in the 1940s.” I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, albeit a bit later, and Manhattan to me was Emerald City, Xanadu, Shangri-La and Disneyland rolled into one, though I knew better than to try to shake Goofy’s hand. The dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, the jumpseats in Checker cabs, and the hot dogs and beans casserole at the Horn & Hardart Automat were all miracles to me, and if a single one of the so-called time machines I’ve bought on eBay had worked, I’d be back there right now. Eventually I lived and worked in New York City for more than twenty years, but the city wasn’t the same, and, sadly, it’s even less so now.
Now that I’ve dated myself as a dinosaur of a different sort, I suppose I ought to explain who Jimmy Durante was. Born in Brooklyn to an Italian-American family in 1893, Jimmy Durante was first a vaudeville star and then an immensely popular star of radio and TV from the 1930s through the 1960s. Durante was a talented singer, dancer and comedian, but his real stroke of genius was to transform his enormous nose, which would have been the kiss of death to a lesser artist, into a beloved American cultural landmark. Durante referred to his nose as “the schnozz” or “the schnozzola,” and used his pride in the appendage as the focus of many of his comedy routines.
Incidentally, it’s never too late to learn something, in this case assuming that Wikipedia is trustworthy on the subject. For much of his career, Durante bracketed his appearances with his theme song, “Inka-Dinka-Doo,” and his somewhat mysterious sign-off phrase, “Good Night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Much speculation over the years as to the meaning of the phrase was settled by Jimmy’s explanation in 1966 that “Mrs. Calabash” was his nickname for his first wife Jeanne Olsen, who had died in 1943.
While Durante was Italian-American and “schnozzola” certainly sounds, as you say, vaguely Italianate, it’s not. “Schnozzola” is simply a jocular elaboration of “schnozz,” an Anglicized form of the classic Yiddish word “shnoitsl,” meaning “nose.” Go a bit further back and you’ll find the German word “Schnauze,” meaning “nose or snout” (which is related to the word “snout” itself and which underlies the name of the “Schnauzer” breed of dog).
Since Durante got his start in vaudeville, it’s not surprising that he was familiar with the Yiddish “schnozz.” It’s possible that he appended the suffix “ola” to “schnozz” because it seemed to echo his Italian heritage, but it’s equally likely that he was simply falling into step with the “ola” naming craze that consumed the US during much of the early 20th century. Although “ola” is essentially meaningless in itself, its use in names such as “Pianola,” “Victrola,” “Motorola” (which originally made car radios), Shinola and Crayola made “ola” a very popular naming element at that time.
Interestingly, the formerly positive connotation of “ola” shifted around 1960 with the eruption of the “payola” scandal in US radio (in which disk jockeys were discovered to be taking payoffs to play certain records). Overnight, “ola” became as clear a marker of scandal as the suffix “gate” later was in the 1970s and 80s, producing such terms as “ghostola” for the use of ghostwriters and “plugola” for paid celebrity endorsements. It’s likely that only the popularity of “granola” (which dates back to the 1880s) and Crayola crayons eventually detoxified “ola” in the popular vernacular.