From A to Z

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Z once had another name - izzard, a word today associated more with alternative comedy than the alphabet. In fact, z has other comic connections: an Italian clown named Giovanni (pet name Zanni) gave us the word zany in the 16th century.

Like all letters, z takes you on a whirlwind tour of the history and geography of the world. As well as words from near home (zinc, zigzag - both German) there are common z-words from Africa (zebra, zombie), the Middle East (zenith, zero, azure) and the Far East (Zen). The classical languages gave us zone (from the Latin for "girdle") and zoo (an abbreviation of "zoological gardens" from the Greek zoion, an animal). In recent times it has spawned some wonderfully evocative words for inventions (zip, zapper).

For reasons best known to themselves, Americans refer neither to zed nor izzard but to zee. Unfortunately, this means British children who learn the alphabet song from the American children's television programme "Sesame Street" end up trilling a final couplet that doesn't rhyme:

u - v - w - x - y - z

Sing the alphabet with me.

It's a sad way to end one's recitation of the world's greatest communicative tool, so may I offer early years teachers on both side of the Atlantic an alternative song, also to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star":

a b c d e f g

Sing the alphabet with me.

h i j k l m n

Have a rest, then start again.

o p q r s t u

Come on, you can sing it too!

v, then w, x and y

z is last, so say goodbye!

Song taken from 'Ginn Big Book Phonics', a new course covering National Literacy Strategy phonics through songs, games and activities, by Sue Palmer and Michaela Morgan (to be published this autumn)

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