The Grammarphobia Blog

From Zee to Zed

Q: I was just wondering if you knew why the letter “Z” is pronounced “zee” by Americans and “zed” by Canadians. My cousin is from Vancouver and it makes me giggle whenever I hear him say that.

A: Where the pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet is concerned, we in the United States are the odd ones out. The standard pronunciation in Britain and in all the old British Commonwealth nations is “zed.”

H.L. Mencken, in his book The American Language, says that the standard pronunciation “zed” became “zee” in the United States sometime in the 18th century, but he doesn’t go into why this happened.

One might speculate that the “zee” pronunciation was influenced by the parallel pronunciations “bee,” “cee,” “dee,” and so on. And it was probably helped along by Noah Webster’s preference for “zee” in his influential American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

The pronunciation “zed” for the letter “z” entered English in the 1400s, borrowed from the Middle French zède, which in turn was derived from zeta, the Latin and Greek name for the letter.

“Zed” and “zee” aren’t the only versions on record, though. In Samuel Johnson’s time, the letter was often called “izzard” or “uzzard,” and in fact “izzard” survived in odd pocket of the U.S. well into the 20th century. But it was mainly used as part of the expression “from A to izzard,” and was seldom used by itself.

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