The Alphabet: from A2Z

Alphabetical order always struck me as unfair. Arabella Asquith was born with a distinct advantage over Zachary Zephaniah. Even the brothers James and John sprang to rather greater prominence than their mustachioed father. I’m an egalitarian. Everyone should have an equal chance to shine. That’s why I’ve always felt sorry for the letter ‘z’ – loved it, supported it, tried to ensure it wasn’t always bringing up the rear. Almost every list starts with an ‘a’, but how often do people go all the way through to the end? Never ever – and, when they do that, poor ‘z’ is split in two:

In one verse, All Saints give us:

“Flexing vocabulary runs right through me
The alphabet runs all the way from A to Zee”

But in the next, it’s:

“Sometimes vocabulary runs through my head
The alphabet runs all the way from A to Zed”

And some words cheat – they pretend to use z. How else should Coleridge have spelt the mythical place where Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decreed? Perhaps the opium got to him.

The Greek alphabet has only 24 letters and z (or zeta) is right up there in sixth place. None of the other letters jostled for position, yet somehow (decreed by the great Alpha to Omega?) z was relegated all the way to the end and beyond. Even the new upstarts finished ahead of it.

At least in mathematics z holds pride of place, though only in italics. Not only is it first choice for any complex variable (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know), but the Riemann zeta function remains the greatest mathematical mystery there is – that may one day amaze us with the distribution of prime numbers.

Some people think that –ise endings are the way things have always been and it’s those upstart revolutionaries from across the Atlantic who introduced us to –ize. But they’d be wrong. It’s on these shores that spellings went awry, de-zedding the dictionary for its common-as-muck sibling, as if the language weren’t swimming in a swirling sea of smug esses already. At least Inspector Morse recognized that no Oxford don would have written ‘realise’ in a suicide note.

Happily Tibor Fischer’s excellent The Thought Gang is so deliberately packed full of zany z words that it even comes with a glossary. I don’t know if he rhymes them with me or head, but at least it shows I’m not the only z zealot.

~ by keithmansfield on December 13, 2009.

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