Zee And Zed

Now that the Term from Hell has finished, I'd like to get back to blogging on an at-least-weekly basis.  Toward(s) this end, I've stuck my cursor into the e-mailbox that holds the 'potential bloggables'. Since it's nearly midnight as I start this, I consider myself very lucky to have blindly picked one that I've mostly done before. [Editor's note: but since it was interrupted by a conversation about applying for primary school places for my daughter and some laundry, I'm still getting to bed after 2. Typical me, typical me, typical me.] Since I feel like it should have had its own post, I shall give it one.

So: BrE  zed versus AmE zee, for the last letter of the English alphabet.

The last time I talked about these was in my grumpy (but reasonably well-informed) reply to BBC News Magazine's (merrily uninformed) grumpfest "Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples". Here's their Number 46, followed by my reply:

46. I hear more and more people pronouncing the letter Z as "zee". Not happy about it! Ross, LondonFair enough, but why has zed come to us from zeta, but beta hasn't turned up in English as bed? (Because it's come from French and they did it that way. But still!) I have two zee-related suspicions: (1) Some BrE speakers prefer zee in the alphabet song because it rhymes better (tee-U-vee/double-u-eks-why-and-zee/now I know my ABCs/next time won't you play with me). (2) Fear of 'zee' is a major reason that Sesame Street is no longer broadcast in most of the UK. Both of those issues (not problems!) are discussed in this old post. ...which gives you a link to the time before that that I talked about it. And before that, I mentioned it in my zebra post. But there's more still to say about zee and zed.

Zed goes way back in English--the OED's first citations of it are from the 15th century. The OED's first example of zee, on the other hand, is from a 1677 spelling book published in England by Thomas Lye, a non-conformist minister.  Lye was born in Somerset and educated at Oxford, and was preaching and teaching school in London at the time of publication. Bill Cassell at his Canadian Word of the Day site mentions its competitors:
The letter has actually had eight or more names during its long sojourn at the bottom of the English alphabet: zad, zard, zed, zee, ezed, ezod, izod, izzard, uzzard. One of those names is zee, a dialect form last heard in England during the late seventeenth century. That name was brought to America by British immigrants, perhaps not on the Mayflower but very early indeed in American history. Another English dialect form is izzard, from mid-eighteenth-century English, perhaps from French et zède meaning and z, or else from s hard. Or, as I believe but cannot prove, izzard is simply as an r-infix form of izod that arose in an English dialect where speakers liked to insert r-sounds into r-less word endings. In Scotland the letter’s name has been at various times in history ezod and izod. Even uzzard shows up as a legitimate name of the letter.(I think we should be a little careful here. We don't have any citations of zee written in Britain since Lye's spelling book--but this does not mean it was last heard then. The names of letters are not often written out, and dialectal names of letters even less so, so goodness knows how long it might have [chiefly BrE] pottered on.)

So, zee is not originally AmE, but it came to be decisively AmE, with Noah Webster (whom we might call the architect of American spelling), specifying in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language "Z.‥ It is pronounced zee". 

Decisively American, but not always unanimously American, it seems, as the OED also gives this quotation:
1882    E. A. Freeman in Longman's Mag. I. 94   The name‥given to the last letter of the alphabet‥in New England is always zee; in the South it is zed.
So, dialectal variation for names of this letter has been found on both sides of the Atlantic. Many things conspire against the survival of such dialectal variations--for example compulsory education, formal education of teachers, the rise of the text(-)book (more likely to have the hyphen in BrE, no space/hyphen in AmE), and the spread of the "Alphabet Song" (first copyrighted in Boston, Massachusetts in 1835). I'd be interested to hear whether any of you (in the US or UK) still use dialectal versions that are out-of-step with your nation's standard.

One place where zed is used in the US is on (orig. AmE) ham radio--which is what got me started on this post in the first place. American Bill 'K1NS' wrote to me in September with this:
Amateur radio operators (hams) around the world have
been saying ZED instead of ZEE for as long as I have
been a ham, which is 54 years now. For example, my
old call sign used to be KAY 6 ZED AITCH ARR.

It is odd, but over my lifetime it has become a habit, and
I automatically say ZED when with hams, but never in
other circumstances.

But I must say that the newer generation of hams say
ZED less often. They are more likely to say ZED if
they are "DXers," that is hams who regularly make
international, long distance contacts as opposed to
local hams who mostly "ragchew" with their local
ham buddies.So, some free ham-radio lingo with your alphabet info.  I cannot attest to the dialect-specificity of that!