Zed vs Zee

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I was struck with an interesting thought this morning in the shower (as is often the case).

As you probably know, in the United States, the letter “z” is pronounced “zee”, whereas in most other countries, it’s pronounced “zed”. It occurred to me that, while the latter is more commonly accepted, it totally screws up the alphabet song.

The alphabet song is made up of six lines (as with nearly everything, the version you know may be slightly different based on where you grew up). Those lines are:

A-B-C-D-E-F-G,

H-I-J-K L-M-N-O-P,

Q-R-S T-U-V,

W-X Y and Z.

Now I know my ABCs,

Next time won’t you sing with me?

So the rhymes are gee, pee, vee, zee, sees, and me. But if the letter “z” is pronounced as “zed”, then the song is ruined. That lead me to wonder if the reason we pronounce the letter “z” as “zee” because of the song, or if it’s pronounced “zee” in the song because that’s how we pronounce it.

It’s difficult to make a strong case in either direction. The alphabet song was first copyrighted by Charles Bradlee in Boston in 1835 (the full title of the song, by the way, is, “The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the piano forte”). Etymologists don’t know for sure when Americans started pronouncing it “zee”, but in 1828, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language, wherein he wrote, “Z… It is pronounced zee.” [source]

To further confound the issue, “zed” and “zee” aren’t the only ways to pronounce the letter! As recently as 1983, it has been referred to as “izzard” (although this is highly dialectical). This pronunciation is quite old indeed; Johnson’s 1755 dictionary stated, “Z… [Name] zed, more commonly izzard or uzzard, that is, shard.” [ibid]

It does seem that Noah Webster was probably the strongest influence. He avidly believed that Americans should have their own distinct dialect of English, and his dictionaries changed the spelling of words such as “colour” and “centre” to their now-common, rather uniquely-American counterparts. [source]

At the time of his death in 1843, his work was still relatively unrecognized, it’s clear that he had a significant and lasting impact upon the American lexicon. It’s likely that, as his dictionaries began to gain traction, the letter “z” began to be pronounced as he had desired, further separating Americans from the British (and pretty much the rest of the world).

So which is correct? Well, “zed” of course. But if we didn’t try to do things differently from the rest of the world, that wouldn’t be very American, would it?

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5 Comments

  1. That *is* fascinating, says me, a fellow nerd.

    After becoming a certified Final Cut Pro instructor, I’ve tried to replace “zee” with “zed” in my own vocabulary. The reason? Keyboard shortcuts. When I took my certification class, it was taught by an Australian woman. She said “zed”, obviously. The first time she said it, I realized: if I said “zed”, no longer would I get the question, “did you say “Control+T? Control+C?” “No, Control-Zee” DAMN! 🙂

  2. You didn’t mention the pause after S and X (which rhymes them with each other). Not every line ends with an “ee” sound.

    Here in Japan the song is a little different.

      a-b-c-d-e-f-g

      h-i-j-k-l-m-n     [ed: What? En doesn’t rhyme with Gee!]

      o-p-q-r-s-t-u    [?]

      v-w-x-y-zed     [!]

    (w has three full syllables, dub bull you, so the meter matches, which is more important than the rhyme here)

    So, we have gee, en, you, zed. Nothing rhymes at all.

    To make it more confusing, in Junior High they switch from Zed to Zee, although the Japanese pronunciation for that Latin character is still zed. (or, zeddo, anyway). [They also switch from Kunrei-shiki to Hebon-shiki; it’s a confusing time, English-wise].

    Some links for my amusement:

    1) Bell beaver kills the Canadian Zed

    2) NO! MAKE IT STOP! NOW!

  3. Good point about the x and the s, I hadn’t noticed it!

    Wikipedia pointed out that Japan’s version is different. Is it sung to a different tune?

  4. Same tune, I think. I can’t really remember. It’s been a year (almost exactly to the day) since I taught at a JHS. But I’m pretty sure it’s the same.

  5. tracey

    I am a kiwi, and I pronounce it Z never zed. My daughter is bilingual in Spain and the teacher told her off for saying z, I have taught her the abc song since she was little and its ZEE not Zed. NZ was also a english colony, not anymore, and as far as I know we all say Z.

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