the letter zee or zed: which name is best?
At a recent Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, a purse-lipped, snooty spelling official succumbed to an on-camera hissy fit when a Canadian girl contestant had the temerity to spell a word and use zed as the name of the last letter of the English alphabet. “We’d prefer zee,” sibilated the prissy prune of a spelling judge. Then why, American sir, would you invite the English-speaking world to your spelling bee and not have the civility to permit both names of the letter, zed and zee, to be used? Must American neo-isolationism and provincialism descend even to a simple children’s contest?
Zed is the name of the letter in Great Britain, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and most other places on earth where English is used. But in America they call it zee. Fine. That does not appear to be a problem of planet-shattering consequence. Yet Canadians, like me, were generally miffed at American officialdom casting scorn on our pronunciation. For that reason CTV National News came to my humble abode and digitized a short TV clip for broadcast Friday, June 3, 2005. Their viewers wished to know the origin of the two names, zed and zee. Was one letter name correct and the other wrong? Well, here’s the answer.
Z is the twenty-sixth and last letter of the English alphabet. The nutshell story of zed? Zed entered Middle English from French representing a “ts” or “ds” sound, then came to represent the voiced sibilant in, for example, the word zoo.
Because it entered French from Latin as zeta, it became zède in modern French, zeta in modern Spanish and Italian, and zed in English. The Romans borrowed the letter from the Greeks where it is zeta. The Greeks borrowed it from the Phoenicians where it was zayin. The Phoenicians were a Semitic trading people who shipped goods all over the ancient Mediterranean Sea. We may think of our modern “Roman” alphabet as the Phoenicians’ most precious cargo. The letter is still known as zayin in modern Hebrew, as it was in ancient Hebrew.
Zed was not uttered affectionately from the lips of every English speaker. Hundreds of years after it entered our alphabet, certain literary types were still bitching about it. “Thou whoreson Zed, thou unnecessary letter!” yells Kent to Oswald during their slanging fight in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The letter name zee, now American, was not invented in America, as several bumptious and jingoist American websites suggest. The letter has actually had eight or more names during its long sojourn at the bottom of the English alphabet: zad, zard, zed, zee, ezed, ezod, izod, izzard, uzzard. One of those names is zee, a dialect form last heard in England during the late seventeenth century. That name was brought to America by British immigrants, perhaps not on the Mayflower but very early indeed in American history.
Another English dialect form is izzard, from mid-eighteenth-century English, perhaps from French et zède meaning and z, or else from s hard. Or, as I believe but cannot prove, izzard is simply as an r-infix form of izod that arose in an English dialect where speakers liked to insert r-sounds into r-less word endings. In Scotland the letter’s name has been at various times in history ezod and izod. Even uzzard shows up as a legitimate name of the letter.
In the first great dictionary of English in 1755 (there were other, lesser wordlists printed earlier), Dr. Johnson opined “Z . . . zed, more commonly izzard or uzzard.” The names izzard and uzzard have not totally melted in the obscuring fog of history. Check this 1947 opinion from the Court of Appeals of Kentucky: “If this contract is valid, its provisions are all binding and effective from A to Izzard.” From A to izzard is a folk expression now rare or vanished that implies inclusivity.
In 1828 Noah Webster, the mighty American wielder of word clout, guaranteed that zee would predominate in the United States. In Webster’s magisterial American Dictionary of the English Language he stated: “Z . . . It is pronounced zee.”
The Concise Oxford Companion states, “The modification of zed ... to zee appears to have been by analogy with bee, dee, vee, etc.” Lye’s New Spelling Book (1677) was the first to list “zee” as a correct pronunciation.
In Canada, zed is losing ground to zee. Yes, spelling bee child contestants may still loyally use zed, but in the broader population of young Canadians brought up watching American TV, many, many teenagers and twenty-somethings use zee.
For an interesting excerpt about this phenomenon, read Professor JK Chambers’ research here.
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