The Last Word
This is, I’m sad to say, the final installment of “From A to Zimmer” on OUPblog. As of next week I’m departing Oxford University Press for a new position as executive producer of Visual Thesaurus. I’ve greatly enjoyed the platform afforded me by OUPblog, but I’ve always had a niggling concern over the rubric “From A to Zimmer.” Doesn’t that give short shrift to all the words appearing alphabetically after “Zimmer”? So, since this week’s theme is finality, I thought I’d take a look at candidates for the real last word in English.
For the New Oxford American Dictionary, the last word is zymurgy — namely, “the study or practice of fermentation in brewing, winemaking, or distilling.” The zym- prefix is from the Greek word zumē meaning “leaven” (such as yeast), and the -urgy is from a Greek root for “working,” just as metallurgy means “metal-working.” If you’re not a brewer or a winemaker, you probably haven’t come across zymurgy, except in discussions like this one about the last words in dictionaries.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is bigger than NOAD, so naturally it moves the goalposts back a little further. The Shorter ends with zythum, “a drink made in ancient times from fermented malt, esp. in Egypt.” Once more we’re in the realm of fermented beverages, and again we have the Greeks to thank, with zythum deriving from Greek zuthos by way of Latin. The complete Oxford English Dictionary, like its Shorter distillation, currently stops at zythum in its main headword list, though you can find zyxt tucked away in the entry for the verb see as an obsolete Kentish variant (second-person singular past tense only, if you please!).
Some dictionaries, such as American Heritage and the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, take things all the way to zyzzyva, a genus of tropical American beetles. The biologist Thomas Lincoln Casey bestowed this genus name in 1922. Casey was probably inspired by another Z-heavy taxonomic name, Zyzza, which in older classifications referred to a genus of leafhoppers so named for their buzzzzzing noise. Zyzza is also responsible for the last word in Webster’s New International Dictionary, in both its second and third editions: Zyzzogeton, an extended form referring to yet another genus of buzzy leafhoppers. And some biological references will tell you that Zyzzyx names a genus of sand wasps that (you guessed it) make a buzzing sound.
To break the barrier into zz- words, we have to be a little more lenient. In 1903, Rupert Hughes published The Musical Guide (entitled The Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia in subsequent editions), which has as its last entry zzxjoanw. According to Hughes this is a Maori word pronounced “shaw” that can mean “drum,” “fife,” or “conclusion.” Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s because it’s a hoax entry. It was debunked in 1976 in the journal Word Ways by Philip M. Cohen, who noted (among other warning signs) that the Maori written language doesn’t even use the letters z, x, or j. Fake entries like this are called Mountweazels after a famous fabrication in the New Columbia Encyclopedia. (For more on Mountweazels and other examples of “lexicographical belligerence,” see this recent article by Rutgers professor Jack Lynch.)
If we accept place names, then the award most likely goes to Zzyzx in San Bernardino County, California. Zzyzx is a far-flung settlement in the Mojave Desert that used to be called Zzyzx Springs, originally named by Curtis Howe Springer, who founded a resort there. Whether Springer was inspired by the buzzy Zyzzyx sand wasps, I cannot say. But we can safely conjecture that he wanted to secure the last place name in American atlases, much as the Yellow Pages feature “AAAAA Auto Parts” and other companies trying to get the jump on the competition, alphabetically speaking. If you’re ever traveling on Interstate 15 between Southern California and Las Vegas, keep an eye peeled for the exit sign to Zzyzx Rd, leading to Springer’s old settlement.
To beat Zzyzx requires a word with at least three Z‘s. If we can accept onomatopoetic representations of snoring, then we can pile up as many Z‘s as we want. The OED entry for Z includes this lovely citation from a 1983 issue of the British satirical magazine Private Eye:
“Once you have hit on a commercial product you just go on producing more of the same, over and … zzzz … over and … zzzz … over and … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”
That’s 43 Z‘s in a row at the end. There is of course no upper limit, as a Web search readily shows. But before all this snoring puts readers to sleep, I’ll end things here. Though this brings “From A To Zimmer” to a close, it’s not my final word. You can still find me writing at Visual Thesaurus and Language Log, and I expect I’ll be making guest appearances here on OUPblog every now and then. Thanks for reading.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.