Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Daily Hump: Z

I was talking to my gf the other day about British versus American spellings, particularly with regards to the American's much more abundant use of the letter Z. Rather quickly, the subject turned away from spelling to the pronunciation of the letter itself: zee versus zed. It seems natural to me that we'd call Z zee, afterall we call B bee, D dee, G jee, K kay, etc...basically you don't need more than two consonants to spell any letters in our alphabet minus the wily W. But much to my surprise we Americans are all alone because the British (including everyone, excluding the Americans, who were once under the empire's yoke) and the French are all zedophiles.

Z was not native to Old English. English inherited the letter from the Anglo-Normans and Z ultimately harkens back to the Greek zeta, which itself goes back to the Hebrew zayin. It's easy to understand the relationship between zed and zeta and it wasn't until the end of the 17th c. that people started hearing zee. However, as Randomhouse's Maven notes, it could be that we Americans have one man to thank for our pronunciation
...Noah Webster--lexicographer, spelling reformer, and advocate for a unique, distinctive American English--must have exerted considerable influence. The pronunciation of Z in his great two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was unequivocal: "Z . . . It is pronounced zee."
Interestingly, other dialectal names for the letter exist beyond zee and zed: izzard, ezod, uzzard (all from the mid-18th c. and likely derived from the French et zède) and zod.

zed [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Z [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Z [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:03 AM


How come Z is used to signify snoring? Snoring seems to happen in the back of the throat where as Z is a dentally fricativy thingummy of some sort.

Just curious.
Blogger Auntie Sarah, at 12:35 PM  
Auntie Sarah, I was just going to ask the same thing!
Blogger Loocite, at 3:34 PM  
Here's my two-cents: If you slept well last night you "slept like a log", which perhaps led to the idea of sawing logs when one's snoring. Anyone who has sawed knows it makes a buzz sound, so maybe that's how zs got connected to sleeping.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary "Series of zs to represent a buzzing sound first attested 1852; zees "spell of sleep, a nap" is slang first recorded 1963, Amer.Eng. student slang."
Blogger David, at 4:04 PM  

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