Zed versus zee, a love-letter to Nancy

by DaniGirl on October 21, 2005 · 17 comments

in Wordplay

It’s Nancy’s fault. She asked “So, which one is it (zed or zee)? Anyone know? And should we really care? Is it really a Canadian versus American thing? Or something else?”

Ooo ooo ooo! (dances in chair, waving hand in the air) I know, I know! I care!!

In fact, my darling Nancy, it is not so much a Canadian thing to say “zed” as it is an American thing to say “zee”. According to wikipedia:

In almost all forms of Commonwealth English, the letter is named zed, reflecting its derivation from the Greek zeta. Other European languages use a similar form, e.g. the French zède, Spanish and Italian zeta. The American English form zee derives from an English late 17th-century dialectal form, now obsolete in England.

Is it really worth all this debate? Even Shakespeare himself cast aspersions on the dignity of the 26th letter of the alphabet with an insult I’m going to try to work into at least two conversations today: Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter! (King Lear, act II, scene II.)

You got me curious, though, so I did a little bit more research on the subject. According to the Concise Oxford Companion, “The modification of zed to zee appears to have been by analogy with bee, dee, vee, etc.” It seems Noah Webster, the dictionary guru, seems to have mass-marketed the “zee” pronunciation, along with the incorrect spelling of “centre”.

Apparently we Canadians aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the Americanization of the “Sesame Street” phenomenon you mentioned and its influence on how you learned to say zee versus zed. I found a research paper titled, “Can Sesame Street bridge the Pacific Ocean? The effects of American television on the Australian language.” The introduction to her thesis talks about how just like here, Australian kids learn to say “zee” by watching Sesame Street and their parents correct them to say “zed”.

Sesame Street’s influence also gets mentioned in this chapter from the textbook Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and Its Social Significance. He says,

With the use of “zee” stigmatized, it is perhaps strange that children should learn it at all. One source is pre-school television shows beamed from the United States, notably one called Sesame Street, which was almost universally watched by children in the 1960s when it had no serious rivals… Sesame Street and its imitators promote the alphabet with zeal, almost as a fetish, thus ensuring that their young viewers hear it early and recite it often. The “zee” pronunciation is reinforced especially by the “Alphabet Song,” a piece of doggerel set to music that ends with these lines:

ell em en oh pee cue,
ar ess tee,
yoo vee double-yoo, eks wye zee.
Now I know my ey bee sees,
Next time, won’t you sing with me?

The rhyme of “zee” with “tee” is ruined if it is pronounced “zed,” a fact that seems so salient that many Ontario nursery school teachers retain it in the song even though they would never use it elsewhere.

More than just ending the alphabet song with a jarring non-rhyme, the zed/zee conundrum poses problems for people trying to market technology across the border. CNews reports on a Toronto law firm who lobbied Bell Canada and Nortel to change the pronunciation from “zee” to “zed” in the directory on their voice mail system:

“We’ve had inquiries about why it is the way it is when we’re Canadian,” said Tammie Manning, a communications analyst at the law firm. “(People said) we’re not the States. We’re independent. Why should we be subjected to that?”

Several officials from Nortel insisted the technology to make the switch from “zee” to “zed” was simply not yet available. But by mid-afternoon Friday, following several calls from a reporter, the company’s director of corporate communications said Nortel would change the “zee” to “zed” as soon as possible.

And then, of course, there is the infamous Joe Canadian rant from Molson’s, which although overplayed and out of date, still merits mention in the discussion:

Hey, I’m not a lumberjack, or a fur trader, and I don’t live in an igloo, or eat blubber or own a dogsled. And I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada, although I’m certain they’re really, really nice. I have a Prime Minister… not a president, I speak English and French, not American and I pronounce it About, not A-boot.

I can proudly sew my country’s flag on my backpack, I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity not assimilation, and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal. A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch, and it IS pronounced Zed, not Zee… ZED!! Canada is the 2nd largest land mass, the 1st nation of hockey, and the best part of North America. My name is Joe and I AM CANADIAN! Thank you.

So you see, dearest Nancy, it DOES matter, in a patriotic sort of way. Aren’t you sorry you asked?


{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 SilverCreek Mom October 21, 2005 at 1:38 pm

LMAO! YEAH DANI! You did disappoint if I have a question like that will you do all the research for me?
You’ve made my day!
Proud to say ZED!

2 nancy October 21, 2005 at 1:54 pm

OMG!!! Dani you are hilarious and obviously waaaay much smarter than me. I do appreciate your efforts and time and tireless research on this life altering debate, thank you.
Webster, Shakespeare, Greek Alphabet – pshaw – does nothing for me. But Joe! You remembered Joe. I love Joe! Perhaps I will rethink the pronounciation now…again…thanx to Joe. But, while I am re-thinking my position, I’ll likely continue to sing the song ending with eks wye zee…basis my ONLY reason on the fact that I personally think it sounds better. No other reason. But, now that you have rekindled Joe, you may see alittle more smoke from my ears. Well, more than usual.
Going to watch Joe – it doesn’t hurt that he is kinda cute, in a rustic Canadian kinda way.
P.S. Center or centre? Theater or theatre?
P.P.S. I still love you.

3 M-A October 21, 2005 at 2:02 pm

How much time do you have on your hands? πŸ™‚

4 alliemom October 21, 2005 at 2:09 pm

LMAO! You guys are too funny.
Can I play too? Neighbourhood or neighborhood? Behaviour or behavior?!! πŸ˜‰

5 Snack Mommy October 21, 2005 at 2:16 pm

I love Joe

6 Kristina October 21, 2005 at 4:52 pm

OO oo! Me too! Colour or color? Honour or honor?
Great post! So funny & well done that I had to “de-lurk.”

7 Beanie Baby October 21, 2005 at 7:50 pm

Ah, my Canadianism is vindicated.

8 twinmomplusone October 21, 2005 at 9:05 pm

brilliant Dani, totally brilliant, this could be material for a thesis paper!
Like Nancy, it was Joe that convinced me, love Joe!
“sKedule or CHedule” for schedule?
thanks for enlightening us!!!

9 bart October 21, 2005 at 10:10 pm

ok, a little aussie input here… long live the zed (although zee rhymes better which creates a little dilemma here πŸ˜‰ )
thanks for an enlightening and generally just lovely post… bye πŸ˜€

10 Kristina October 22, 2005 at 12:50 am

I had to comment again (I’m on a roll here, wee-haw!) to respond to the “sKedule” vs. “sHedule” question as posed by twinmomplusone. I have to admit that the “sHedule” pronunciation is a bigger pet peeve of mine than it probably should be. It HAS to be “sKedule.” I compare it to this: school is “sKool” not “sHool.” There’s my 2 cents on that one. Over & out, I promise. πŸ™‚

11 BeachMama October 22, 2005 at 1:34 am

Dani, you are the best researcher I know. Do you give lessons??
I love Joe, thanks for the reminder and Nancy, thanks for the link and the inspiration of the letter “Z”.
Anna – I am CANADIAN

12 twinmomplusone October 22, 2005 at 4:33 am

right on Kristina, can’t stand hearing sHedule, drives me nuts actually so thanks for collaborating my thoughts on that one

13 Danigirl October 22, 2005 at 12:37 pm

Uh oh! Will you still love me if I trained myself to say SHedule years ago, when I was young and pretentious and spent way too many hours listening to CBC Radio? Peter Gzowski made me do it!!
Welcome Kristina! Thanks for joining in!

14 Kristina October 22, 2005 at 4:42 pm

LOL Dani – absolutely! Actually, it’ll be a breeze, because even though you’ll think ‘sHedule’ as you type, I’ll still read it as sKedule. πŸ˜‰
Thanks for the welcome – glad to be here!

15 Shelley October 23, 2005 at 12:46 am

I feel much more edumacated now, thank you. Oddly enough, although I quail at “lef -tenant” and insist on “skedule”, I have always retained the zed.

16 Running2Ks October 24, 2005 at 4:26 am

I’m still going to go with zzzz instead of the name of either. I’ll straddle the border, I tells ya, mate πŸ™‚

17 Madeleine October 26, 2005 at 5:31 pm

There is a poem that makes the rhyme work for zed. My daughter learned it in kindergarten last spring, and they called it the Canadian ABCs. I can’t remember the whole thing, but ….
write it down with paper and pen
read it back again to me
now it’s always in your head (?)
After spending her first 4 years in the states, she has been re-educated here. At her annual eye test she mixed-and-matched and the doctor said, “oh, she’s bilingual.”
There are apparently a few words whose spelling is distinctly Canadian — using one “british” rule and one “american” one. Something about the z vs s and o vs ou, I think. Dani could probably track it down.

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