The Grammarphobia Blog

From “izzard” to “zed” to “z”

Q: I am among thousands of amateur radio operators in the US who use “zed” for the letter “z.” Using “zed” in place of “zee” avoids confusion with “c” and other similar-sounding letters. I recently came across this Random House page on “zed.” Any thoughts?

A: Thanks for the interesting Random House Word of the Day link. As the site explains, we in the United States are the odd ones out where the word for the last letter of the alphabet is concerned. The standard pronunciation in Britain and all the old 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 speculate as to why.

One possible explanation, according to linguists, is that Americans simply like having their word for “z” sound more like “bee,” “cee,” “dee,” and so on.

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 word for “z” on record. In Samuel Johnson’s time, the letter was often called “izzard” or “uzzard.” In fact, “izzard” survived in odd pockets of the US 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.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.