Zee vs. Zed

The Americanized attempt to force “zee” on us is not working! I sang the alphabet song with rhyming “zee” throughout my childhood years, and I now pronounce the letter almost invariably as “zed”, to the extent to which I had to explain what it meant to the dumb bunny at Land’s End who was taking my address. (Z appears in my postal code.)

It may also have been reinforced by the fact that I learned the alphabet song in both official languages (no joke). In French it is always zed (the song concludes “…double-vé, ix, y-grec, zed.”)

So you call up some poor clerk in the U.S. who has probably never been 20 miles from her hometown in her life (you do know where the Lands’ End phone handlers live, right?) and she becomes a “dumb bunny” because you insist on your pronunciation? That’s at least as arrogant as any stupid Yank comment I’ve ever heard.

The funniest zee/zed story I’ve ever witnessed was the time I was called in to translate between a Texas-raised programmer and the Operations Manager at Stratford, Ontario. We had a Print Class “Z” that was, effectively the bit bucket and a Job/Initiator Class “Z” that was assigned to the Stratford facility. The programmer had to coordinate that year’s physical inventory results with all the plants. She had never encountered zed to begin with, and the Canadian had never had to talk to a Texan. Their first five minutes of “conversation” was mutually unintelligible. Once they got past a few of the stranger (to each of them) terms or pronunciations, they got along fine for the next four weeks.


P’raps this is better put under MPSIMS, but:
Whilst I normally tend to consider that British usage is true English, as opposed to American usage, which is derivative, I take exception on the zee/zed question. Note that most letters (consonants) end in -ee, and absolutely no other letter is pronounced with the addition of an extra consonant. Yes, there are a few exceptions to the -ee sound, like ef, jay, kay, el, em, en, que, are, ess, and the vowels… but none of them involve the addition of an extra consonant.

It thus seems to me that making zed an exception to a common pattern (-ee) and a base rule (no extra consonant) is bizarre and unwarranted, so I stick with American usage on this one.

If you say “zed” then you can’t sing, “won’t you come and play with me?”

You realize of course, CK, that there is an etymological reason to say “zed” rather than “zee”:

So this usage can hardly be called “unwarranted”, especially since it is also reflected in other languages, e.g., French (as quoted by matt_mcl) and German (“Zett”, pronounced “tset”). In fact, one might rather wonder why letters like B and H (derived from Greek “beta” and “eta”) are not analogously pronounced “bed” and “ed” (or “hed”). (Hebrew has letters “beth” and “heth”, which I think are equivalent.) Just the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose.


Sorry, Holg, I think that’s ex post facto reasoning, and you yourself raise a couple of the counter-examples:

-Greek beta became “bee”, no one says “bed”
-Greek delta became “dee”, not ded (although that has some attraction, I confess)
-Greek eta became “ee”, not “ed”
-Greek iota is just “eye”

So why the special treatment for z? Again, I repeat, regardless of “origin”, when it got to an English alphabet, not a single one of the other consonants has a different consonant in it’s pronunciation (H and X possibly excepted).

The historical reason is that Z is not a true letter of the Latin alphabet. It was dropped very early on and G, an alternative form of C (C had originally been pronounced like G, but Latin pronunciation had changed and most words with the sound of G had changed to the sound of C (K), so the new letter G was invented for the relatively few words that still had the older pronunciation) was inserted in its place.

Y (which had already mutated into V) and Z were reintroduced later on, purely for spelling Greek words. (Hence the still-existing French name of Y.)

On a humourous note, I once met a cabbie in Salisbury who was convinced that the American word for “zero” was “liftoff”.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The British pronunciation of Lieutenant is
LEFF-tenant. I remember an English show
with a bunch of military folks and a lady
from the states are having an argument. The
lady says, “Now look here LOO-tenant,”
to which everyone replies: “LEFF-tenant!”

CK, I was merely pointing out that there is good reason to say “zed”. Specifically, it was your calling it “bizarre and unwarranted” that bothered me. I was not denying that Z is strangely different from the other letters in this respect. Thanks to John for enlightening us about the reason for that.

To David: In the british TV series “Dempsey & Makepeace”, American police officer Dempsey says to his English colleague Makepeace, “Now listen, I’m a lieutenant, and you’re just a sergeant.” To which she replies: “We don’t have LOO-tenants!”

Now what’s that doing in this thread…?


OK, Holg, perhaps instead of “bizarre and unwarranted”, I should have said, “possibly perhaps slightly moderately peculiar.” I accept the amendment to my terminology.

And I wasn’t dis-ing you, and my sincere apologies if you read my comments to be in any way offensive. I meant to be frank and friendly, acknowledging your historic comments but finding them insufficient explanation as they stand… which John has filled in. Although, I still think American usage is more conforming than British usage on this one.

Leftenant vs Lootenant is good evidence of how these threads get mixed up; check out the various threads comparing British and US usage in the other forums.

[[If you say “zed” then you can’t sing, “won’t you come and play with me?”]]Big Moron
Hmmm … actually you can, on sober reflection – oh well!

Why can’t you sing “next time won’t you play with me”? It rhymes with “Now I know my abc’s.”

Whatever gave you that idea? I was not offended in any way (were you?), I just clarified my opinion because I felt you hadn’t quite understood me. Do I appear so touchy?


You said you were “bothered,” Holg, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was concerned whether that meant you thought… well, anyway, all’s well. Cheers, he said, downing his beer.



Isn’t the entire english language, no matter where it’s spoken, a derivative?

I don’t think there resally ia a ‘pure’ English–and as for BBC English----aw come on!