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Put succinctly: With Z, the journey never ends


“My alphabet starts with this letter called yuzz. It’s the letter I use to spell yuzz-a-ma-tuzz. You’ll be sort of surprised what there is to be found once you go beyond Z and start poking around.” — Dr. Seuss from “On Beyond Zebra!”

Last time, I went all X-rated when I looked at the 24th letter of our alphabet. This time I’ll go to great lengths — all the way to the end of our alphabet (but not as far as Dr. Seuss went) — to talk about the history and some of the meanings of the intriguing letter Z.

As is often the case with our letters, we can thank the ancient Greeks for the Z since they probably used the letter “zeta” to represent the sound “ts.” But Z’s journey into the current alphabet hasn’t always been a smooth one.

Around 300 B.C., Roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus removed the letter from the alphabet, reportedly because he thought that it “looked like the tongue of a corpse.” (He probably was referring to the letter’s lowercase rendering, which looked like this: ζ.) But by 1 B.C., Z was restored to the alphabet — at the tail end.

As the letter enjoyed more and more use among English speakers, it came to be pronounced “zed” (after the French word “zède”) almost everywhere, even in the young United States. It wasn’t until after the Americans gained their freedom from England that we started pronouncing the letter Z differently than every other English-speaking nation on the planet.

Why? According to Reader’s Digest, “Noah Webster spearheaded the movement when he began publishing the standardized dictionaries of American English with deliberate changes from British English (and) sure enough (he had) designated the distinctly not-British ‘zee’ as the official American pronunciation.”

Husson College professor Adam Crowley postulates that “the popularity of ‘zee’ grew (also) because it rhymes with other letters such as B, C and P.” He also notes that no other letter in American English ends in “ed.”

And on top of all that, in 1835 Boston-based music publisher Charles Bradlee put lyrics to an 18th-century melody, gave melody credit to French composer Louis Le Maire, and called it: “The A.B.C., A German Air With Variations for the Flute With an Easy Accompaniment for the Piano Forte.” Bradlee’s ABCs alphabet song became popular in every English-speaking country, and because humans are mimetic (they mimic what they hear), parents in Great Britain reportedly had to reteach their children to say “zed” instead of “zee.”

Recently the Z has acquired a more sinister reputation. When Russia commenced its “special military operation” (war) in Ukraine early last year, many of its invading vehicles had large letters with mysterious meanings painted on them, Z being the most prominent among them.

The fact that there is no letter Z in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet (the letter that makes the “zee” sound in Russian looks more like a 3) had experts in specialties ranging from warfare to languages venturing guess after guess as to the real meaning of the giant letter.

One of the best first guesses was that the Z stood for “Zapad” (West), where those particular vehicles were traditionally stationed. Postings by the Russian Defense Ministry on Instagram showed soldiers wearing the letter on their uniforms and suggested that it might stand for “za mir” (for peace) or “za pobedu” (for victory).

Kiril Avramov, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains the use of the letter “falls really well within the tradition of the best techniques of Soviet propaganda of hijacking and adopting symbols.”

In the NATO phonetic alphabet, Z is pronounced “zulu.” To Russians who are brave enough to protest their country’s invasion of Ukraine the Z stands for “zachem” (meaning “why?” or “for what?”).

As for the sound of a Z, it doesn’t have as many permutations as its nearby alphabetmate the X, but it does have several.

There’s the common Z sound, as in puzzle and zigzag.

Then, there’s the S sound, found in waltz and eczema.

Then, there’s the special TS sound that the two Zs in “pizza” give us, unlike the two Zs in “buzz.”

Meanwhile, in “seizure,” the Z gives us the same unusual sound that the S gives us in “leisure.” Zsa Zsa Gabor helped train us all on that sound.

Speaking of pizza, you’ll find a Z in one of English’s shorter words — and the only two-letter word containing a Z allowed in tournament SCRABBLE): “za,” which is short for “pizza.”

As for long Z words, there are plenty, including this 15-letter favorite: zigzaggednesses.

Well, that’s enough for today. I’m beat. I’m going to catch some Zs.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected].


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