July 29, 2009

I say “zed.” Maybe you do, too. Or you might say “zee.” Lately, I’ve been noticing that my kids say “zee,” and I’ve also been noticing that I’m saying it here and there. Why?

When you think about it, the whole thing is very weird. A lot of us share the same alphabet, whether we speak English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German or Italian. The Finns use the same alphabet, but only a few of the letters. Same deal with Hawaiians, I think, but I’m not sure, because all I know about Hawaii I learned from Thomas Magnum.

Anyway, despite the fact that we share this alphabet, there’s an issue with the last letter. Letter No. 26 is Z, which represents a sound that can’t be spelled out otherwise. Maybe it’s “ts” or “sts.” I can’t say. I just know it comes in handy when I want to talk about crazy zany lazy zebra zippers. But not lasers. Lasers have no Z (Light Amplified by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation: LASER).

Americans say “zee.” Everyone else says “zed.” The letter used to be called “izzard.” I am not making this up. It’s a new addition to the language — you must have known that, because it’s last — and while we all use it the same way, its name has been an issue. You can thank Thomas Webster for that. Two hundred years ago, he took it upon himself to decide it was “zee” as he wrote his dictionary (he wanted it to fall in line with other letters, like B, C, V, T, etc.) and Americans have called it that ever since.

Best words that start with Z:

  1. Zealot
  2. Zoetrope
  3. Zip
  4. Zest
  5. Zebra
  6. Ziggurat
  7. Zinc
  8. Zanzibar
  9. Zenith
  10. Zero

Here’s a little Canadian secret: We are taught “zed” in school, but we tend to say Z vernacularly. You will never hear someone say “I learned it all from A to zed.”

In the history of human language, Z is still a baby. It has some room to grow. I’m now leaning toward calling it “zee.” Not because of any geopolitical or cultural belief; I just think it sounds better.

Besides, when you sing the alphabet song, it makes the rhyme work. “W, X, Y and … zed?” Ouch.



  1. Zanzibar is among my favorite Billy Joel songs.

  2. I think World War Z and the like will be the nail in this bit of Canadiana’s coffin.

  3. Oddly enough, most of my favorite Zee words start with X.(although Zygote is a fun one, too)

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