In most English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Zambia, and Australia, the name of the letter Z is zed, pronounced /zɛd/. Zed takes its name via French and Latin from the Greek equivalent, zeta. In American English, its name is zee /ziː/. Zee is thought to have originated from a late 17th-century British dialect and influenced by the bee, cee, dee, ee pattern of much of the alphabet.
This British dialectical form was likely what the English Puritan minister and author, Thomas Lye [Leigh, Lee], was drawing from when he published his New Spelling Book in England in 1677; the full title of which is:
A New Spelling Book, Or, Reading and Spelling English Made Easie: Wherein All the Words of Our English Bible are Set Down in an Alphabetical Order and Divided Into Their Distinct Syllabls
At the time of its publishing, Britain was home to a variety of dialectical pronunciations of the letter Z that included zed, zod, zad, zard, ezod, izzard, and uzzard. Samuel Johnson, in his highly influential Dictionary of the English Language published in London in 1755, referenced izzard as the name of the letter. In King Lear, 150 years earlier, Shakespeare had used zed.
Beginning in the 1600s, zee and other British pronunciations made the voyage across the Atlantic to colonial America. By 1883, British historian, Edward Augustus Freeman, noted that zee was mainly found in (formerly Puritan) New England, while zed was the accepted form in the American South. Areas such as Philadelphia vacillated between the two. He also noted that not a few Americans still used izzard, a fact that tickled his British funny bone.
Nonetheless, by the 19th century, zee became firmly established in the U.S. with several important developments. New England born, Noah Webster, published his own American Spelling Book in 1794 with the letter “ze.” In 1828, Webster also published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language asserting the pronunciation of the letter Z as “zee.” Finally, “The Alphabet Song,” copyrighted in 1835 and published by Boston-based music publisher, Charles Bradlee, rhymed Z with “me.”
FYI: The tune of “The Alphabet Song” is based on the 18th-century French song “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman.” It was popularized by Mozart in his “Twelve Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman.” The melody is also used in other children’s songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.”
It’s worth noting that, like zee, Webster also defined the standards of American spelling for words like theater for theatre and honor for honour,” spellings that were not invented by Webster himself. These were spelling variants in use in the English language, including in Britain. Webster simply chose to institute one variation as a standard.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Britain was undergoing a similar change, namely a push-back against izzard and its variants. Sticking with the etymological legacy of its French origins (zéde), zed became enshrined as the proper name of the letter in British English.
Finally, it’s important to remember, unlike most major languages in the world, English has never had a regulatory body that governed its use – anywhere nor at any time. As for slinging tired arrows at the U.S. for its “unilateral” divergence from British English, let’s reflect on the idea that even today, in a country the size of Louisiana, England has over 40 dialects (compared to 24 in the whole U.S.) and a long legacy of myriad spelling and pronunciation variations. Over several centuries and 4000 miles apart, the notion of a culturally freeze-dried, correct language and orthography simply didn’t exist, on either side of the pond.
I Have/Who Has are excellent exercises in reading, speaking, and listening! Click here to see how you can make this simple activity walk across the room! Check out all the I Have/Who Has activity sets in Donald’s English Classroom.