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.”

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