How do you pronounce the letter Z?
Chances are that if you’re American, or learnt American English, you pronounce it as zee. For the rest of us, it’s zed. Why the difference?
The letter derives from zeta, the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet (Ζ uppercase, ζ lowercase). It’s easy enough to see how the sound changed from zeta to zed over the years.
The first recorded use of the pronunciation zee is in Lye’s New Spelling Book from 1677. One theory as to why it became popular in the United States is that it feels more natural, rhyming with b, c, d, e, g, p, t, and v. I think there was also probably a conscious effort to promote the pronunciation by those in the late 18th and early 19th century who sought to differentiate American English from British in order to further establish an independent American national identity.
Noah Webster gave the pronunciation his seal of approval in his 1828 dictionary, but perhaps the biggest factor in solidifying its pronunciation in American English was The Alphabet Song, copyrighted in 1835. There’s just no way zed would work in that song! It’s so popular and widespread in fact, that the pronunciation zee is favoured by some people outside of the US. I sang the song heaven knows how many times as a child, and though zed is the dominant pronunciation in Ireland, some people do pronounce it zee, due to the influence of the song, and the fact that we use a few more Americanisms than our neighbours in the UK.
It’s interesting that it’s the only letter that’s pronounced differently among English speakers. Though perhaps in the near future there’ll be a campaign to have w renamed “double v.”
By the way, have you ever noticed that The Alphabet Song; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; and Baa Baa Black Sheep have the same melody?