iTunes might seem like a strange resource for looking at language, but it’s where I went when I found myself writing about the letter Z. Not only is that the last letter of the alphabet, but it’s probably the most underused.
In English that may be because we often pronounce s as z (was, because etc.) So interchangeable have they become that there is a transatlantic split. The spellchecker on Microsoft Word, being a US national, automatically changes my spelling of organisation to organization, just as it changes centre to center and so forth. Regardless of its being pronounced zee rather than zed, clearly there are more z’s in the USA than in the UK, but it is much more common in Eastern Europe.
So, iTunes. Being a music buff, I have more than 2,000 songs at my disposal, but not one title starts with z. As for artistes, iTunes complicates the search by its insistence on using first names for alphabetical order, but the only two bands in my list are ZZ Top and Zero 7 (whom you’ve probably never heard of and I’ve only ever heard one track, so don’t worry about it).
Thinking about second names, there’s some Frank Zappa among my souvenirs, and The Zombies. You may recall In the Year 2525 by Zager and Evans, but I never liked that.
Album titles: Zuma by Neil Young. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is in there somewhere, but not under z because the album is officially called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
Look up any list you like and you’ll find the same story. Films: Ice Station Zebra. Actors: Billy Zane.
US presidents: Zachary Taylor (1849-50). UK Prime Ministers: a couple of Fitzsomethings but no first letters.
Its rarity makes z an exotic letter. Zen sounds mysterious because of the letter at the start. If it was called Ken, it wouldn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.
It does crop up as a penultimate letter from time to time, though, which is what brought it to my attention. In an article about the disgraced American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, written by an American, it told how Lochte was “a jock” (that means Scottish where I come from) and how university students give newcomers to their fraternity a good “hazing”. Adrift on this sea of Americanism I eventually decoded it. A jock is an athletic type, a fraternity house is like a men’s hall of residence and hazing means giving someone a hard time to the extent of humiliation.
Although it is easy enough to find the definition in a dictionary, the origin of this word is unclear, as is the reason for its recent popularity.
Perhaps it is something to do with the word “faze”, which became widespread a few years earlier. To be fazed by something is to be deterred, put off or intimidated and it is often heard in a testament to someone’s fortitude. “Nothing fazes him”.
And that has nothing at all to do with the word with which it is sometimes confused, phased, which is occasionally used as a verb to describe a gradual process. “Steam engines were phased out in the 1950s.”
Dispensable though those two words are, at least they breathe a bit of life into the struggling z.