July 5, 2017

Zyzzyva and other pleasant and not-so-pleasant changes to the OED


Growing up in a very American family, I often had to listen to actual, bona-fide, real exhortations on America’s principal compendium of words, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Look at this fine pinnacle of American achievement!” my stepfather used to say. “See how its pragmatic assemblage of Americanized words fit handsomely between those red end-boardy-flapper thingies. It’s the best of all dictionaries, I would wager. Truly superior to all other word books, and such.”

That might have been true in the early nineteenth century, back when things manufactured in Massachusetts still bore the crest of the smithy from whence they had come. But lo, since 1895, word nerds of any renown have looked to the Oxford English Dictionary, more affectionately the OED, for insight and guidance on the state of the English language. In all its twenty-volume majesty, the OED provides meanings of words, but also the contexts by which those little humdingers and onomatopoetics have come into existence and persisted to this day. So when the editors at the OED decide to make formal additions to their exhaustive collection, it’s time to perk your ears and proceed with reckless abandon. Shit’s about to go down.

As Travis Andrews at the Washington Post reported last week, not only have we added more words to the dictionary, but after over a hundred years, the dictionary now has a different ending. Zyzzyva, the name in our glorious language for “a genus of tropical weevils (family Curculionidae) native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees,” has supplanted zythum, an ancient Egyptian beer, as the final word in English:

For the uninformed, a weevil is a sort of beetle, generally small and herbivorous. The most familiar is a small brown variety referred to as a rice weevil. As its nickname suggests, these are often found in stored rice.

…It is much less likely you’d find Zyzzyva in your home, however. The insect was discovered in Brazil in 1922 by Irish entomologist Thomas Lincoln Casey, who gave it the strange name. The origin of the word is unknown, and it seemingly has no etymology.

The OED goes a bit further on its blog to speculate on this word’s unlikely phonemes:

“The motivation for the name isn’t clear; some sources suggest it is an onomatopoeic reference to the noise made by the weevil, possibly inspired by a former genus of leafhoppers, Zyzza, and perhaps chosen deliberately as an alphabetical curiosity.”

This year, you’ll also be able to find:

(Definitions below are mine; if you want the real ones you should get an OED.)



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.