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When a spell like raise dead fails due to something such as a soul not being willing to return to its body, it will cause the spell to fizzle. It's a term I'm used to and not surprised to see describe a spellcasting, but I ran into it while reading about the raise dead spell on the Forgotten Realms wiki and was wondering if it was ever a term officially used in the books of D&D or if it's something that players just collectively starting using.

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Fizzle isn't RPG jargon, it's just an ordinary English word that has been in common use since long before D&D.

The relevant definition of fizzle at Merriam-Webster is:

  1. to fail or end feebly especially after a promising start

So using fizzle to describe something (like a spell) being started and then failing is its regular meaning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love that the word is applied to thermonuclear bombs where a fizzle will only produce say 110 kilotons instead of 1 megaton. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Feb 12 '18 at 11:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM That actually goes back towards the original meaning because the bombs fission fuse failed to ignite the next stage. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Neely Feb 12 '18 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanNeely I know the physics - I’m just amused that something with with 7 times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb is a “fizzle” \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Feb 12 '18 at 19:57
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Fizzle in the sense of explosives dates back at least to the 19th century:

FIZZLE. A ridiculous failure. The figure is that of wet powder, which burns with a hissing noise and then goes out without producing any effect BARTLETT'S DICTIONARY OF AMERICANISMS, 1859

An earlier meaning may have informed this use:

Fizzle: A silent Fart A New English Dictionary: or, a complete collection of the most proper and significant words, commonly used in the language, John Kersey 1739

Etymonline has a little more to say on the history, dating this oringal sense to the 16th century:

1530s, "to break wind without noise," probably altered from obsolete fist, from Middle English fisten "break wind" (see feisty) + frequentative suffix -le.

The extension to spells and anything else that may be expected to provide a dramatic effect seems obvious.

Searching for earlier sources can be a little tricky as OCR doesn't handle long s ( ſ ) very well, confusing it with f. Sizzle (ſizzle) is thus easily confused with fizzle; the related meanings make it hard to disambiguate.

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    \$\begingroup\$ lol for the second definition... \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Feb 12 '18 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the mention of wet powder. It seems to me that fizzle is most often used with evocation, where that subtle connotation is relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Feb 12 '18 at 20:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suspect (but don't know) that fizzle when applied to damp explosives is onomatopoeic (at least in part). They fizz and go out. \$\endgroup\$ – Martin Bonner Aug 3 '18 at 6:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MartinBonner even if that's not etymologically the case, the onomatopoeia (whether true or not; I've handled gunpowder but never damp) would make it a good choice of word and encourage its adoption. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris H Aug 3 '18 at 7:15
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Spells fizzle in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition

As other answers mention, the word fizzle can be traced back quite a ways, but as a Dungeons & Dragons game term it's the Player's Handbook (1989) for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition that I think first uses the word fizzle in an official capacity. On Wisdom on Chance of Spell Failure says

Priests with low Wisdom scores run the risk of having their spells fizzle. Roll percentile dice every time the priest casts a spell; if the number rolled is less than or equal to the listed chance for spell failure, the spell is expended with absolutely no effect whatsoever. (111)

(Emphasis mine. Page reference from the Player's Handbook (1995); your page numbers may vary.) In other words, in Dungeons & Dragons the term—so far as I can tell originally—was shorthand for what happens when a spell is used but does nothing.

The Player's Handbook uses the term again later on Casting Spells but descriptively:

[I]f the spellcaster is struck by a weapon or fails to make a saving throw before the spell is cast, the caster's concentration is disrupted. The spell is lost in a fizzle of useless energy and is wiped clean from the memory of the caster until it can be rememorized. (23)

(Emphasis mine.) Unfamiliar as I am with the tournament scene at the time, I can't speak to whether the term fizzle was used earlier than 1989 in live settings. By way of personal experience, my last Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Second Edition campaign was nearly two decades ago, and, while I played a wizard for a decade in that campaign, I've no recollection of any of my PC's interrupted spells fizzling—we just used the word failed.

The Player's Handbooks (2000 and 2003) for 3e and 3.5e each use the word fizzle once in a similar descriptive context to the word's second use in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition: "[T]he spell fizzles with no effect" (125 and 140, respectively).


Note: To go further afield, I suspect the increased popularity of the term fizzle comes from Magic: The Gathering which had a rule about when spells fizzle in one of its early rulebooks. (I think circa 1998 with the original Urza block, but I can't confirm this.) Although the term is considered archaic now, the shared player base of both Wizards of the Coast's major properties can't be ignored.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Adding to your footnote, EverQuest also used the term "fizzle" for failed spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Feb 12 '18 at 23:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Doval Wikipedia puts the Everquest release year at 1999. I suspect (and, of course, cannot prove) that its use of the word was likely inspired by Magic (which had been informally using the term since its 1993 inception) which I also suspect (and still can't prove) was inspired by D&D, but, certainly, that's another possible avenue of exploration. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 12 '18 at 23:38
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The term is definitely older than RPGs. Used in this sense it means fail, but it could also refer to a hissing sound (which I could imagine a failing spell might make).

As Chris H says, the term originally referred to silently farting. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was formed from the Middle English word fise (meaning "fart") + the suffix -le (probably in the diminutive sense). The noun, meaning a silent fart, was derived from the verb. This sense of the word (both noun and verb) is now obsolete. The earliest example in the OED is from a book that lists some English verbs and their French translations from ?1533 (exact date is uncertain):

To fysel, uener
An Introductorie for to Lerne to Read, To Pronounce, and to Speke French Trewly

Here's another early example, from 1601:

As for Onopordon, they say if Asses eat thereof, they will fall a fizling and farting.
The historie of the vvorld: commonly called, The naturall historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Translated into English by Philemon Holland Doctor of Physicke.

It isn't until the 1840s that the word began to be used to mean a fail. The definition listed in the OED is:

intr. (chiefly U.S. colloq.) To fail, make a fiasco, come to a lame conclusion; in U.S. College slang, to fail in a recitation or examination. Also, to fizzle away, to fizzle out.

Merriam Webster, as linked by SevenSidedDie, gives 1840 as the date it was first attested, but I was not able to find an example as early as that (because it's most likely a paywalled newspaper). I was able to find multiple examples from 1844, which is earlier than the OED's first citation.

I found one example published in the Weekly Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), Wednesday, July 17, 1844:

A Palpable Fizzle-out.

The Journal, after its flourish of trumpets about Mr. Bartley meeting Mr. Tod fairly trots its nag off the course last night. It did not exactly mean Mordecai—O! no! Just as though Mr. Tod would stop to meet such men of straw as might be floating on the scum of coonery, and not his opponent.

I found another example in The Cleveland Herald, Thursday, July 18, 1844:

“Fizzling Out”—One of the old Sachems of “the party” here, on hearing the nomination of Polk, exclaimed, “well, I never thought our party would fizzle out at the little end of so small a horn as that.”—Marietta Intelligencer.

These newspapers are from Ohio, so it seems likely that's where this sense of the word originated.

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