In History, Nature, What is, Words

This bloke came up to me the other day and he said, a little smugly, “I’ve just finished reading the dictionary… ”

“Wow!” I said. “Did you learn anything interesting?”

“Yes,” he said. “The zebra did it.”

I think he was trying to be funny but I wasn’t having it. Being falsely accused of a crime is no laughing matter. Everybody knows the Zyzzyva did it.

What’s a zyzzyva? It’s a big-nosed weevil that lives in the American tropics and feeds on palm leaves, of course. More to the point, it’s the last word in the dictionary. The American dictionary, that is. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its wisdom, refuses to recognise ‘zyzzyva’ (probably due to its criminal record) and leaves us instead with the word ‘zyxt’.

Like oast houses, Gypsy Tarts and the White Cliffs of Dover, ‘zyxt’ is a Kentish creation, a now obsolete word that was once used by Kentishmen, or men of Kent, or possibly neither, to mean ‘you see’. As in “Zyxt that small, rotten apple? That’s your dinner, that is.” Or, “Listen you yaugh yawnup, touch my zoster and I’ll give you a good bannicking, zyxt!”

Why it fell out of use is beyond me, but if you’re planning an expedition to Kent and you want some words to help you get by, you’ll find some beauties in this Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect.

Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that z wasn’t the last letter in the alphabet. As any 19th century schoolchild will tell you, the alphabet used to end with the ‘and’ symbol &, now known as ‘ampersand’. When reciting the alphabet, those 19th century schoolchildren would follow any letter that formed a word in its own right, e.g. A or I, with the Latin ‘per se’ (by itself) and then the letter again.


So when they came to &, they would say, “And per se and,” which became contracted to ‘ampersand’. Try it for yourself.

So anyway, I went back to that bloke and said, a little smugly, “Actually, I think you’ll find the ampersand did it.” He had no answer to that.

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