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, London
Fair 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!

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2011 US-to-UK Word of the Year: FTW

Many thanks to the intrepid readers who have nominated words and phrases for SbaCL Words of the Year this year. Yesterday, kettling was announced as the BrE-to-AmE WotY. Tonight's post does the other (AmE-to-BrE) half of the job.  Unusually, both Words of the Year come from readers' nominations. Am I getting less bossy and opinionated and more generous in my old age? We can only hope so.

And so the AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year is (you're going to hate this):


Yes, you are going to hate it. And you will hate it for one or more of the following reactions:
  1. "WTF does it mean?"
  2. "That's internet-speak, which is border-crossing by nature. Why should we think of this as inherently AmE?"
  3. "That's not a word! It's an alphabetism [or initialism]! At best, it's a phrase!"
  4. "My nomination was so much better."

Let's take these objections one by one: 

First, get your mind out of the gutter. The F stands for for.  As in For The Win. If I read it aloud, I read it as that phrase, not as the letters. (I'd be interested to hear if anyone does just pronounce the letters for this meaning.)  It's usually used as a post-nominal (after a noun) modifier in order to indicate enthusiastic approval of something--especially something that has 'come through' and 'won' for you.  Here are some recent tweets that have used it (and while I typed the last sentence, 59 more twitterers used it):

god, love sophia grace and rosie, essex girls ftw!

Big bang theory FTW!

What I need is a 'Labour Insider' (unhappy SpAd will do) who has same axe to grind & can repeat himself every week. Journalism job FTW!

This made me laugh. tithenai.tumblr.com/post/321518623… Catholics FTW
[Editor's note: it made me laugh too. Go ahead, (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look!)

The first two of these seem to be by young people watching television. The third writes for The Guardian. The last is a Member of Parliament. So, you might not know FTW...but a lot of people do.

Now, its Americanness:  Once upon a time there was a television (AmE) game show/(BrE) quiz show called Hollywood Squares. In it, nine entertainers sit in a giant (AmE) tic-tac-toe/(BrE) noughts-and-crosses array, and two contestants try to get Xs and Os into the boxes. During X's turn, for example, Contestant X chooses which square to attempt. The host, Peter Marshall (who hosted it 1966–1981) then asks the (orig./chiefly AmE) celeb a question, and the celeb says funny things and eventually gives an answer. The contestant then has to decide whether to accept the answer or not. If contestant X makes the right choice, then "X takes the square", as Marshall would say.  When a contestant chose the square that could give them their three Xs or Os in a row, Marshall the contestant would name the celebrity and say "[insert name of celebrity] for the win!"  The game was later adapted for UK television as Celebrity Squares, but without that catchphrase.

The catchphrase then, as catchphrases do, made its way into non-televised discourse. And in the age of the 140-character limit, it's been initiali{s/z}ed. The full version exists too, even in BrE. A young tweeter in Sussex, whom I won't link to because he's both underage and apparently doing something illegal, has just tweeted "VIDEO PIRACY FOR THE WIN". 

I see that the (AmE) show/(BrE) programme was back on the air with Tom Bergeron as host 1998-2004, and while I've watched a couple of wins on YouTube now, I've not heard anyone utter the phrase.  If the more recent incarnation hasn't breathed new life into the phrase, then would expect that most young Americans have no idea where FTW comes from. (And even if he did say it and it's being repeated on the Game Show Channel, I'd still not be surprised if young Americans have no idea where it came from.) But knowing the origin of an expression is no prerequisite for using it, so young people, British people, and, according to my Twitter research, an awful lot of German people are using it. I'd expect most Americans of my generation (let's just leave it as 'old enough', ok?) to remember it (maybe not immediately. We're old, you know.  I mean, 'old enough'.).

On the "that's not a word" argument. Well, that's been going on very loudly about Oxford Dictionaries' WotY, (BrE) squeezed middle. (Here's a peek at the pro and the con.)    If we're considering FTW as an alphabetism, then I point you to just about any introduction to linguistics or morphology text that lists word-formation processes of English. If it's attempting any kind of completeness, it will list 'alphabetism' or 'initialism' as a word-formation process. (Here are some examples.) And if it's a word-formation process, then, well, you know...it must form words.

If you think it's not a word because it's a phrase, I've already ignored you by having a phrase as AmE-to-BrE WotY in 2009 (go missing). For the win (like go missing) is word-like in that it is a bit of language that is learn{ed/t} as a whole, with meaning and usage constraints that go beyond the sum of its parts. That makes it [in my professional usage of the term, at least] a lexeme--something that you'll store in your mental lexicon--the dictionary in your head.* And I'm a lexicologist. We [the three or so people in the world who call themselves lexicologists] mostly deal with words, but, you know, we usually don't see a very important distinction between words and other types of lexemes when thinking about things like lexical borrowing between dialects. 
* (Or we could think of it as a lexicali{s/z}ed construction--and I like to think of things that way. But let's not try to squeeze too much of a linguistics degree into this post. It's already way past anybody's bedtime.)

It all comes down to your definition of word. We can fight about it, but I'll just phone in my part of the fight because 'word' is not a terribly useful linguistic concept.  Most people think of words as bits of writing with spaces on either side, but that doesn't work.  Less masochistic readers might want to skip this bit, but here's is part of the entry on 'Words' that I wrote for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences:
In English orthography, word is easily defined as a unit of language that is written contiguously, with a space on each end. The notion of orthographic word is, however, circular since spaces were introduced into the written code in order to mark the boundaries between words. A more satisfying definition would help explain why such boundaries are perceived in the flow of language. Orthography is also an unreliable indicator of wordhood. Some languages do not have a written form, some orthographies
(e.g., Chinese, Lao) do not mark word boundaries, and any orthographical system is subject to fossilization and arbitrary fashions. For example, on most linguistic criteria, the compound noun ice cream is a single word, in spite of the space within it.
There is no clear linguistic definition of word, however. The most theoretically useful definitions are based on grammatical or phonological criteria [...], but their usefulness is limited by the fact that a) grammatical word and phonological word do not delimit the same set of expressions and that b) no grammatical or phonological criteria for wordhood are applicable to all types of words in all languages.

So: is it a word? Isn't it a word? It's a bit of language whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts and whose form-meaning association has to be learn{ed/t} by, and stored in the memory of, competent speakers of the language. That's good enough for me.

If you object to this word because you didn't nominate it, then you only have Ian Preston to blame for getting there first, arguing his case and attracting support.  (BrE Teacherese) Must try harder.

[added: 22 December lunchtime] But why is this the word of 2011?  In part it's because 2011 seemed to be the year of win.  We had BrE speakers complaining about AmE use of winningest (here, among other places), Charlie Sheen all over the news with Winning! (which has not caught on as much over here--nor has Two and a Half Men), lots of use of win as a mass noun.  For evidence of that, I just searched for of win use by tweeters within 50 miles of London and got a lot of results, including:
Actually - this whole site is full of win:
Samantha Halford

My graze box for tomorrow is made of win. And sadly I'll have to nom the whole thing due to the hols. What a shame :D 
[Ed: This one might need some translation. Nom was last year's runner-up for the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Hols is BrE informal for 'holidays'. If you want to know what a graze box is...]
But among these, it was FTW that was nominated, and since it has a long history in AmE and a shorter one in BrE, it seemed a clearer instance of dialectal borrowing than the others. Why this year? Because this year is when I noticed my students using it. In fact, it was because of  Erin McKean (amazing to discover you know people with their own Wikipedia entries) and one of my English former students using it on social media on the same day that I looked it up--reali{z/s}ing that the F was probably not as bad as it sounded...

WotY signing off for another year!

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2011 UK-to-US Word of the Year: kettling

This year, I'm spreading the SbaCL Words-of Year announcement into two posts -- partly to make up for hardly blogging at all this autumn and partly so that I can go to bed tonight.  So, starting with the BrE-to-AmE import of the year, I give you: 


I'm thinking of it here mostly as a gerund (a verb made into a noun by adding -ing), but, of course, the verb itself has been imported too: to kettle - '(for police) to herd protesters/demonstrators into a restricted, exitless area in order to restrain them'.  Now, this is fairly new to BrE too, and Michael Quinion wrote about it last December. He traces its use in English to happenings around the London G20 summit in 2009 and notes that it seems to be a calque (loan-translation) from German. When students were protesting and then kettled in London at the end of 2010, a number of American readers of internet newspapers contacted me to ask what it meant.  A year later, American newspapers use the word to describe the treatment of Occupy Wall Street protesters.  This Gawker piece uses the similar-though-not-police-related AmE word corral in its headline, then explains the police procedure as kettling in the article.

Kettling makes an ideal SbaCL WotY for two reasons:
  1. It's a word of this year.  Other nominees like gobsmacked  have been slowly making their way into AmE for a number of years. Kettling is very 2011. 
  2. America didn't really need it (we had corral), but took it anyway.  This is the usual complaint about AmE imports to BrE: "Why use this horrible foreign word when we have perfectly good words from OUR side of the ocean that we should have PRIDE in?!  We're being Americanised!! Or, worse, AMERICANIZED!!"  This just goes to show that AmE can both dish it out and take it.

So, congratulations kettling and many thanks to Nancy Friedman for nominating it and other commenters and tweeters for supporting it.

Before turning to the AmE-to-BrE winner tomorrow, let me just mention an AmE-to-BrE also-ran that relates to kettling: occupy.  It was nominated by Roger Owen Green and supported by others, but I don't think it qualifies.  The meaning of occupy in Occupy Wall Street and later Occupy London Stock Exchange (etc.) is a meaning that was already common to the two dialects. What has been imported is not a new word, or a new meaning of a word, but a new slogan or a new template for a proper name. Definitely influential, but not what I'd consider a suitable WotY.

So, come back tomorrow for the AmE-to-BrE winner!

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Word of the Year 2011: Nominations, please!

(A lightly edited version of last year's announcement for this year. There is one more week of the Term from Hell, after which there is the Marking from Hell, but I do hope to get back to regular blogging soon.)

Word of the Year season has begun (though I must say, I do not approve of announcing WotYs in November. Oxford Dictionaries is so cruel to December). This means it's time for me to start the ball rolling for our little twist on WotY escapades.

Long-term readers will know that we have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:

1. Best AmE-to-BrE import
2. Best BrE-to-AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2011, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY worthy and other nominations weren't. Click on the WotY tag at the bottom of this post in order to visit times gone by.

Vote early and often! I plan to announce the winners in the week before Christmas.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)