July 7, 2000
Dave Schreiber wrote:
The recent "Canadian Joe" commercial for Molson beer shows Joe proclaiming, among other things, that it's pronounced "zed," not "zee"!.Why do the Canadians pronounce Z as "zed," while Americans pronounce it "zee"?
The real question is, "Why do Americans pronounce it as "zee"? We're just about all alone out here. Zed is the name for the letter Z in the rest of the (former) British Empire, and since the French also pronounce French Z as "zed," Canadians, hearing it from all sides, are largely in the "zed" camp. But like their spelling practices (signs for "Jewelry" and "Jewellery" exist side-by-side on Toronto shops), some of their vocabulary exhibits connections to both Britain and the U.S., and the pronunciation "zee" is not unknown there.
Actually, the names zee and zed are only half the story. Older names can be found in the literature and in most dictionaries. From Johnson's 1755 dictionary, for example, we have: "Z . . . [Name] zed, more commonly izzard or uzzard, that is, shard." These names, which sound so bizarre to our modern ear, had not entirely vanished by the mid- to late-twentieth century. A 1947 opinion from the Court of Appeals of Kentucky included the following sentence: "If this contract is valid, its provisions are all binding and effective from A to Izzard," and a more recent "On Language" column by William Safire read, ". . . inventive native speakers also express their disdain for the dopes for not knowing the time of day, night from day, A from izzard, enough to come in out of the rain . . ." (1983). But these terms are now rare or dialectal.
Not only does Z have a plethora of names, it has a rather checkered past. When the Romans borrowed 21 of the 26 letters of the Etruscan alphabet, they included zeta. However, some time after 250 BC, the Greek zeta, which was the seventh letter in the Latin alphabet, was dropped. Latin words did not require a symbol to represent its sound (then probably "zd" or "dz"), and a G, made by adding a bar to C, took its place in the sequence. Later, when Rome conquered Greece in the first century BC, Z was taken back into Latin from the Greek, so as to enable the Romans to transliterate Greek borrowings. It was placed at the end of the alphabet.
You can easily see the close and direct relationship between zed and zeta. Zed came into late Middle English from Middle French zede, derived from Latin zeta, which, as we have seen, came in turn from Greek zeta. The American name zee, pronounced "zee,"has more mysterious origins. Etymologists, to the extent that they are willing to speculate at all, point to the analogy with our pronunciation of other consonants: "bee," "see," "dee," "jee," etc. But it is also true that 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.
Not that "zee" triumphed immediately! Here is an 1882 quote from the OED: "The name . . . given to the last letter of the alphabet . . . in New England is always zee; in the South it is zed. That has changed. "Zee" is now acknowledged, certainly in American and British dictionaries, as the standard U.S. pronunciation. Canada is not mentioned. Canadian dictionaries, however, show either "zed" alone or both "zed" (first) and "zee." I guess if "zee" were not a real possibility, Canadian Joe might not be as fervidly insistent upon "zed."
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