June 28, 2013

That's 'World War Zed,' in Canada


---- — The release of Brad Pitt’s blockbuster zombie apocalypse movie has sparked a frenzy in the English-speaking world.

No, it’s not about whether the world, whatever language it speaks, needs another zombie apocalypse movie. It’s about how the letter z, as in “World War Z,” is pronounced.

Of course, readers in Plattsburgh will automatically go with zee; it’s just the American way.

Children north of the border, either English or French, are raised with a hard-edged zed in their mouths, as if it was an harbinger of the rougher life they’re bound to have in a harsher climate.

It’s so ee-zee being American, whereas Canadians live in zed-dread.

As with most colloquial distinctions in Canadian English, we have the Brits to blame, thank or otherwise. According to my in-depth Internet search into the etymology of the letter Z, the purest pronunciation is zed, since it derives from the Greek letter zeta. Other languages, such as German and Spanish, also opt for the hard Z.

Apparently, sometime in the 19th century, Americans, in applying the melting-pot approach to language, starting blending zee in with the other ee-sounding letters like bee, cee and dee.

The ultimate American authority on the matter, Noah Webster, pronounced in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language that “Z ... is pronounced zee.” Undoubtedly, being one of the foremost pamphleteers of revolution, his intent would have been to separate the colonials from the overtaxing British. Kind of like a literary Boston Zee Party.

However, evidence suggests zee is not an original American invention. For proof, we cite Canada word guru Bill Casselman, who has spent a lifetime hunting down the origin of words and expressions favored (”favoured” with a u) in Canada.

Casselman notes that zee is “a dialect form last heard in England during the late 17th century. That name was brought to America by British immigrants, perhaps not on the Mayflower but very early indeed in American history.”

Casselman also points out that zee and zed are not the only variants of the last letter in English. Indeed, izzard and uzzard were used in the olden days, and he quotes a 1947 Kentucky appeal court ruling: “If this contract is valid, its provisions are all binding and effective from A to Izzard.” Has a certain ring to it and maybe worth reviving, eh?

With the cultural bombardment from south of the border via television, movies, the Internet and the like, Canadians may start to worry that Zed may go the way of cursive writing, arithmetic tables and allegiance to the monarchy.

Will the day come when a Canadian prime minister will dare say that where once Canada spanned from sea to sea to sea, it is now zee to zee to zee?

If anyone or thing is to blame for the creeping zee-ism in Canada, it’s Big Bird and his cronies on Sesame Street, as much a fixture in early child education in Canada as it is in the States. A survey done in southern Ontario back in the 1970s found that two-thirds of children age 12 used zee in common parlance, whereas only 8 percent of adults did. When the 12-year-olds were surveyed again at age 25, the percent of zee-users had dropped by almost half.

The research targets the routinely repeated alphabet-learning rhyme on Sesame Street drummed zee into tiny Canadian brains. Once the preschool zee propaganda ceased, most of the kids reverted to their native zed-happy tongue.

Not that Canadians are zed zealots. You never hear, for example, the long-bearded rockers out of Texas called Zed Zed Top, or the rapper Jay-Zed or the Welsh actress dubbed Catherine Zedta-Jones and on and on to izzard.

It remains to be seen whether Brad Pitt’s zombies will have much of an impact on impressionable Canadian movie-goers. Will their zed-bred brains be devoured by zee undead?

As yet, no Canadian politician has called for the movie to be dubbed “World War Zed” north of the border.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at