Sunday, 1 May 2011

Z is for Zed, and I'm Not Giving It Up!

I began my education in Southern Ontario, where teachers regularly chastised students for the use of American spelling and where the letter z was most definitely pronounced "zed."

Moving to Quebec after five years of singing God Save the Queen at school assemblies and learning that "practice" is a noun and "practise" is a verb, I found "zed" was one of the few things I had in common with my classmates. It even came in handy when I tackled the job of catching up on five years of French classes in one semester. With the strange pronunciations of some letters and the interchanging of g/j and the fact that "ee" was an i, at least there was one letter in the French alphabet whose name I already knew!


Those who think of "zee" as the dominant pronunciation may be surprised to learn that most of the English speaking world says "zed." Pronunciation in many other languages is close, often something like "zet" or "zeta." But the letter has gone by a number of other names in its history, including "izzard." Speakers of some English dialects may be familiar with this word for its use in the expression, "from A to izzard." The meaning is intuitive: a large collection of things; the whole of something. We have a full range of products to fill your needs, from A to izzard.

A similar expression is, "to know A from izzard." It could easily replace a more common idiom, which compares one's rear end to one's elbow. He has no idea what he's doing. He doesn't know A from izzard. It's a colourful expression that would be fun to incorporate into your writing.

American Origin?

If you were thinking "zee" originated in the United States, I'm sorry to have to disappoint you. The alternative pronunciation apparently was in use in at least one region of England in the 17th century, and would have come to North America with speakers of that particular dialect. You may also be surprised to learn that z wasn't always the last letter of the alphabet. It was borrowed into Latin from the Greeks, who placed it near the beginning of their alphabet. The Semitic zayin, origin of the Greek zeta, also comes closer to the beginning.

American Pronunciation Overcoming the Zed?

And what of the suggestion that the pronunciation favoured by Americans is suppressing the use of "zed" in Canada and other countries? I am one of the first to bemoan the fact that today's school teachers commonly fail to use, let alone teach, standard Canadian English. But it seems that at least where zed is concerned, Canadians are holding fast to their language.

Linguist Jack Chambers writes that the zee/zed controversy has been with us since at least 1846. He describes the use of "zee" by Canadian youth as an age-graded change, which repeats itself over successive generations. The trend is for young people to adopt the use of "zed" as they get older. There is no overall decline of "zed," nor any increase in the use of "zee" in the population Chambers studied.

In other words, younger Canadian children may prefer "zee" because of their exposure to it through popular songs and educational TV produced the US. But as a population, we drop "zee" in favour of "zed" as we mature.

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