In a Word: Unfazed by Phases

A confusion of plurals and an alarming homophone.

man looking at the moon

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Some language purists might find fault with the word phase, though the word has been a normal part of English for so long that only the truly word-obsessed would even notice anything amiss. Fewer still would see the “problem” and actually label it some kind of error. So what’s going on?

The word goes back to ancient Greek astronomers, for whom the word phásis indicated the physical appearance (from Earth’s point of view) of a celestial body, particularly the moon. Phásis comes from a stem of phainein “to show, to make appear,” which also is a source of the words phantasm, emphasis, phenomenon, and sycophant.

Later, Latin adopted the word (as phasis), and Latin, rather than Greek, morphology rules were applied to it. That meant that the plural of phasis became the Modern Latin phases (in the same way that basis becomes bases and crisis become crises).

Documents from the 1660s show some scientists writing in English still used phasis as a singular noun and phases as the plural. But by 1705, English speakers — likely unintentionally — were applying English morphological rules to the word: If phases is the plural, then, according to what we know about how English plurals are formed, phase must be the singular, right? Thus, phase was a back-formation from the Modern Latin plural phases, and phasis was, well, phased out.

If there is any objection to phase, it’s that it is malformed Latin. (But then, so many English words are.) But for most people, the word doesn’t faze them at all.

Which brings us to the homophone problem. Though the two words sound exactly the same, phase and faze (“to disturb or disconcert”) come from lineages. Faze, which only appeared in English in the early 19th century, is an alteration of the rare verb feeze (or pheeze) “to frighten or alarm,” which traces to the Old English fesian “to drive away.”

The relative newness of faze is why you won’t find the word in Shakespeare, but you will find pheeze. The Taming of the Shrew opens with the beggar Christopher Sly being kicked out of an alehouse and shouting at the hostess, “I’ll pheeze you, in faith.” He’s making a threat, though the hostess knows it’s an impotent one. She isn’t pheezed, er, fazed a bit.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Interesting feature. The word ‘phase’ doesn’t faze me at all. Maybe it’s a phase I’m still going through, like loving the 18th and 19th century mode and style of speaking so much. My mother was a huge Shakespeare literature lover and I wasn’t for many years. It (frankly) was hard to understand and I felt I shouldn’t have to work that hard trying to figure out something that was in English; always one of my best subjects.

    I took Greek and Roman antiquity in high school (which I loved) and that began melting the ice on Shakespeare for me, to a certain degree. What it did was make me interested in how English had evolved between the later 1700’s and during the 1800’s. It had the class and old-fashioned charm I love, but modern enough to be understood much more easily than in Shakespeare’s time.


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