We aged, we decrepit, we ancients of the internet, we people over 30, hear my word and shudder, for the hour of our obsolescence is at hand. Oxford University Press has announced its word of the year for 2023. Beware, for the dread word of our doom and destruction is: “rizz.”
It’s okay, though. I got a Gen Z-er to explain it.
Specifically, I got the Gen Z-er who introduced me to the term. College student and TikToker Henry De Tolla had a TikTok go viral this June for its deadpan use of the phrase “Livvy rizzed up Baby Gronk,” thereby demonstrating to legions of millennials that language has moved so far past us as to become incomprehensible to our failing ears. I called him up and asked him to define “rizz” to me.
“Basically,” says De Tolla, “let’s say you think someone’s considered out of your league. If you have rizz, you can use it to get them to date you.” In such circumstances, after you have flirted someone from out of your league right into your bed, the kids would say you have “rizzed your target up.”
So rizz is like game?
“I would just say the younger kids, I guess, the new generation, a lot of high schoolers and early college students now say rizz,” says De Tolla, with enormous tact.
Oxford University Press has chosen to remind us all of our mortality this year as part of its annual Oxford Word of the Year celebration. Each year, OUP’s language experts track the Oxford Monitor Corpus of English to see which words are being used more frequently than before or have newly entered the language. They’re looking for what OUP describes as “a word or expression that reflects the past twelve months in some way, having potential as a term of lasting cultural significance or providing a snapshot of social history.”
Over the past few years, the Oxford Word of the Year has included “vax” (2021) and “climate emergency” (2019). (No single word made the cut in traumatic 2020.) In 2022 (“goblin mode”), OUP developed the innovation of having the public choose four finalists from a longlist of eight, before OUP’s staff experts picked the word of the year. This year, they were choosing from a finalist list of “rizz,” “Swiftie,” “prompt,” and “situationship.”
“Given that last year ‘goblin mode’ resonated with so many of us after the pandemic, it’s interesting to see a contrasting word like rizz come to the forefront, perhaps speaking to a prevailing mood of 2023, where more of us are opening ourselves up after a challenging few years and finding confidence in who we are,” said Oxford Languages President Casper Grathwohl in a statement.
“Rizz,” short for “charisma,” comes from Black culture, as most American neologisms do. In this case, the word “rizz” was popularized by streamer Kai Cenat. (Cenat, incidentally, is old-person-famous for inciting a riot by offering free video game consoles to his followers in New York’s Union Square.)
Cenat says he used to use the word “rizz” with his close friends in real life. When he got online, he started to pepper it into his Twitch streams in 2021. “I kept saying like, ‘Yo, I got rizz,’” Cenat recalled on the No Jumper podcast a year ago. “At first my chat was like, ‘Bro, what the fuck?’”
Over time, however, the word caught on. Then it made its way to TikTok, where, Cenat says with disgust, “They butchered that word. They killed it.”
Cenat’s “official definition” of rizz has some nuance to it. The main point is that just being good-looking isn’t the same thing as having rizz. Neither is it rizz if you successfully flirt with someone who’s primed to like you.
“Rizz is when you’re talking to a girl and, at first, shit is not going your way,” Cenat explained on No Jumper. “It’s looking bad for you, until you spit game and you’re rizzing them up to where shit starts to go your way. You’re so slick with your words and what you’re saying, to where the girl is like, ‘Okay, yeah, who is this?’ After shit goes your way, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I rizzed her up. I’ve got mad rizz.’” It’s the hero’s journey from underdog to successful lover, per Cenat, that makes it rizz.
Gradually, “rizz” made its way from Cenat’s Twitch stream to TikTok, where De Tolla says he became aware of it as a new word around September 2022. It began to cross over into the mainstream internet this year in a series of confused waves.
In the process of its mainstreaming, rizz shifted. The nuance Cenat insists on has now gradually ebbed away from the way most people use the term “rizz,” so that it’s become a lot closer to the way we used to use the word “game.” De Tolla assures me that these days, you can rizz up someone who is in your league just as well as you can someone out of your league. Basically, it means you hit on them successfully.
I myself learned of rizz in June when De Tolla’s video took off. The same month, noted Zendaya dater Tom Holland claimed to have “limited rizz,” at which point, says OUP, usage of the word “rizz” reached its peak. In November, Tinder announced a “rizz-first redesign.”
Traditionally, when a cool slang word gets incorporated into a big company’s ad campaign, that’s a sign that the slang is about to become a lot less cool. According to Grathwohl, that very transition is part of what attracted OUP to “rizz” as the word of 2023.
“Rizz is a term that has boomed on social media and speaks to how language that enjoys intense popularity and currency within particular social communities — and even in some cases lose their popularity and become passé — can bleed into the mainstream,” said Gratwohl in a statement. “This is a story as old as language itself, but stories of linguistic evolution and expansion that used to take years can now take weeks or months.”
That’s not to say that “rizz” is definitely dead now. I asked De Tolla how long he thought people would be using the word.
“At least the next five years,” he said at once.
The prophets of tomorrow have spoken.