What letter is used most rarely in English? Poor lonely z finishes up the alphabet at number 26. The final letter, z’s history includes a time when it was so infrequently used that it was removed altogether.
The Greek zeta is the origin of the humble z. The Phoenician glyph zayin, meaning “weapon,” had a long vertical line capped at both ends with shorter horizontal lines and looked very much like a modern capital I.
By the time it evolved into the Greek zeta the top and bottom lines had become elongated and the vertical line slanted, connecting to the horizontal lines at the top right and the bottom left.
Around 300 BC, the Roman Censor Appius Claudius Caecus removed z from the alphabet. His justification was that z had become archaic: the pronunciation of /z/ had become /r/ by a process called rhotacism, rendering the letter z useless. At the same time that z was removed, g was added, but that’s another story.
Two hundred years later, z was reintroduced to the Latin alphabet but used only in words taken from Greek. Because of its absence and reintroduction, zeta is one of the only two letters to enter the Latin alphabet directly from Greek and not Etruscan.
Z was not always the final letter of the modern English alphabet, although it has always been in the 26th position. For years the & symbol (now known as the ampersand) was the final, pronounced “and” but recited with the Latin “per se,” meaning “by itself.” The position and pronunciation eventually ran together, with “X, Y, Z, and per se and” becoming “X, Y, Z, ampersand.”
Z is the most rarely used letter in the alphabet; however, American English uses it more often than British English. Early English did not have a z but used s for both voiced and unvoiced sibilants. Words in English that originated as loan words from French and Latin are more likely to be spelled with a z than an s. Also, American standardization modified /z/ suffixes to more accurately reflect their pronunciation, changing –ise and –isation to –ize and –ization.
Here at the end of the alphabet, let’s jump to the beginning: Not only did the letter a used to look different, but it sounded different as well. Learn these facts as well as the animal that inspired the letter, here.
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