Dear Straight Dope:
Whenever I hear a person from Britain pronounce the letter Z, they pronounce it "zed" instead of "zee," as we Americans say it. Why is there a difference between the pronounciations?
As usual in most of these matters, it’s we the people of the US that changed it, not the other way around. “Zed” comes from the original Greek zeta via Old French zede, and pretty much all English speakers worldwide pronounce it that way. The reason we don’t is because we had a pretty major falling out with the people that did, and in the aftermath, seized on dialectical nuances and amplified them. The last thing an American wanted to sound
like after the Revolution was an Englishman, or vice-versa. Not that it was an intentional alteration, but there was a regional dialect in the US (and, it must be said, in parts of England) that pronounced it zee (as there were others that pronounced it zad, zard, ezod, izzard, and uzzard), and this was one difference in the vocabulary which was seized upon by post-George III America.
According to the Concise Oxford Companion, “The modification of zed … to zee appears to have been by analogy with bee, dee, vee, etc.” You kind of get the feeling that this wasn’t the most important letter of the alphabet, not only from this sloppy attention to its pronunciation, but also by such quotes as Shakespeare’s “Thou whoreson Zed, thou unneccessary letter!” Lye’s New Spelling Book (1677) was the first to list “zee” as a
correct pronunciation, and it was pretty much firmed up by Webster, who, like grammarians all over the former Empire, wanted to put the kibosh on all this “izzard” nonsense, and decreed “it is pronounced zee” (1827).
We may win the battle yet, though, by indoctrinating British, Australian, and Canadian kids when they’re young. The plan was, take a catchy tune by some pop composer like, oh, say Mozart, and attach the alphabet to it. The previously mentioned ‘analogy’ with other letters enables you to rhyme the last line of the song, and even a four year old can tell that the line following “q r s, t u v” is not supposed to be “w x, y and ZED”.
This so-called “Sesame Street Phenomenon” is noted in almost all other English-speaking countries, and was addressed by J.K. Chambers in a study of kids in Ontario, in which he noted a lessening of the taboo on “zee” in the Canadian schools. Even in England itself, elementary teachers are complaining that they have to re-teach the pronunciation of the letter when 5 and 6 year olds come to school, and when they sing the song, they typically do so with the
American pronunciation. In my opinion, all we have to do to win the whole language war is to popularize some rhyme with some lines like “Cookies, elevator, french fries, truck; don’t say ‘petrol’ or you suck.”
Now you know about zed and zee. Next time won’t you sing with me?
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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