Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


US-centricism starts early.

File under: Home And Native Land, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:46 am.

I have this partially-written screed about how my country’s top politicians wouldn’t recognize strategy if it waited for a break in the conversation and said, “Hi, I’m strategy, pleased to make your acquaintance. I’d like to talk with you, you know, when you have a chance.” (This, after all, is Canada, where even concepts would possess neither the temerity to hit people on the head nor the lack of coordination to get tripped over, were one to anthropomorphise them.) These past few days, however, I’ve been sharing a residence - south of the 49th - with two children under the age of two, and my facility with polysyllabic words has suffered noticeably in the interim. Maybe if I had kids of my own I could transition seamlessly between congent political commentary and squeaky-voiced declarations of “Bay-bee! Baaaaaaayyyyy-bee! WHERE’S THE BABY??? Ye-e-e-esss!”, but I don’t. Besides, there are more pressing concerns than the former, anyway: while I was writing the first half of this paragraph, I was enlisted by Baby the Elder for help with “nana in a bowl, peez”, “up peez”, and “Doctor-Sooss! ABC book. Peeez?” And, what could I do? She did ask nicely.

Nevertheless, TD&M headquarters is temporarily begging off all alphabet-related duties after yesterday’s incident. We got through the first twenty-five letters without any problems, with BtE easily identifying the various letters and pictures (”a-poh”, “i-cream”, “fower”); but the story culminated on a sour note. “NO!” she screamed at the last page, and turned to face me. “It’s ZEE,” she informed me. I tried to explain that some things could have more than one name (”like these, see? You can call them steps. Or, you can call them stairs“), but she would hear none of it. “ZEE,” she insisted.

I totally lost that one.


  1. Zed? Is that what it’s about?

    You wacky Canadians.

    - dipnut — 5/23/2005 @ 9:25 am

  2. Don’t give up.

    I have optimistic visions of zee being replaced by zed; it would make it so much easier for me to spell things over the telephone.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 5/23/2005 @ 10:49 am

  3. How about “zulu?” It’s NATO approved.

  4. At the academic summer camp where I work, there are heated debates over this. Fortunately, our campers are mature teenagers, and we seem to have reached a compromise of “zeed”.

    Regarding spelling over the phone, we’re so not there yet. The other day I had to book a flight with American Airlines over the phone. I had to go through two agents in order to get one who could deal with my Canadian address (”I can’t enter your zip code - it has letters in it”), and by the time I got to actually giving my whole postal code, I’d been on the phone for half an hour and just pretended that I’d garbled my words and had meant to say zee.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/23/2005 @ 11:21 am

  5. It’s refreshing to hear of a toddler who has been taught to say “please”–I haven’t encountered many such families lately. I hope you will compliment her parents.

    - Garbo — 5/23/2005 @ 1:19 pm

  6. Again does not rhyme with “brain”. And it’s aluminum, too. Nyah. (Or is it just the Brits that do Aluminium?)

    - John — 5/23/2005 @ 1:27 pm

  7. It has nothing to do with Ameri-centrisim. Rather, toddlers can’t understand that one thing can have more than one name. It’s a cognitive skill which we just don’t acquire until much later. I see it every day in my daughter.

    - Jeff — 5/23/2005 @ 1:50 pm

  8. Jeff: Exactly this phenomen was discussed today with my fiancee and her father - then as an example on how small children “powerboost” their language learning by identifying new words as labels on unknown objects instead of contemplating the possibility that they be duplicate labels for already known objects.

    (enough polysyllabics for one night now…)

    - Mikael Johansson — 5/23/2005 @ 2:16 pm

  9. Heh, I’m not taking this as an affront to my nationality. It’s amusing, because as I wrote earlier, I have the same argument with my (teenaged) students every year - all in good fun, of course.

    And being unable to contemplate more than one name for the same object is similar to something I see all the time with my age-of-majority students, many of whom get VERY CONFUSED when I suggest that there’s more than one way to solve a problem.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/23/2005 @ 2:30 pm

  10. Well, the problem is that she also calls any round, fruit-looking thing “apple”. She does know the difference between apple and pear. But tomatoes, oranges, and peaches are all apples, evidently.

    There’s still hope for the future, MS. If one day she can call them peaches, oranges, and tomatoes… she can call Z zed.

    Not terribly likely.

    I will teach her to put a line through her zees, though.

    - meep — 5/23/2005 @ 6:05 pm

  11. Oh, and the way to get them to say “please” is to make them do it from when they start talking. Heck, we taught it to her before she could talk — did the baby sign language thing. The first signs she learned were “more” and “please”.

    Now I have to teach her that just because she says “please” doesn’t mean she’ll get what she wants.

    - meep — 5/23/2005 @ 6:11 pm

  12. I grew up in northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border. We got the Canadian version of Sesame street & I learned to say zed and count to ten in French (instead of Spanish). I didn’t learn to say ‘zee’ until I went to school.

    - sarah — 5/23/2005 @ 6:28 pm

  13. meep: that z-crossing bit is terrifically helpful. Future math teachers will love being able to distinguish between ‘z’ and 2.

    - rosona — 5/23/2005 @ 8:18 pm

  14. When I say the ABCs, I say “zed” just so my 3-year-old knows that there is more than one way to do it, and she knows that they mean the same thing. When she uses zed instead of zee, she ends “Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with Fred?” and giggles. She sang it once at daycare, and the provider looked dumbfounded and asked me “What does she say?”. She never heard of “zed” and probably thinks it is just me teaching her to be anti-Christian.

    - Bill — 5/23/2005 @ 9:19 pm

  15. Re: spelling things over the phone — I don’t know why I’m so bad at it, but I guess I am. They always think my ‘i’ is an ‘a’, and my ‘v’ is a ‘b’. For years, I’ve been saying “‘v’ as in Vagner” and so far I’ve only had two people notice…

    Fortunately, no zee in my name. I doubt I’d go over to the dark side though.

    - mangojuice — 5/24/2005 @ 12:02 am

  16. mangojuice, that is so wrong. I, on the other hand, have managed to confuse many people with “zed as in zebra”. (”You mean ’s’?”)

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/24/2005 @ 7:34 am

  17. I have the same argument with my (teenaged) students every year.

    I’ll have you know that I’m legal now. And I spell otter with a capital ‘zee’.

    - tajmahall — 5/24/2005 @ 8:57 am

  18. I remember how fascinated I was with my grandmother’s 7’s and z’s, both of which she wrote with a line through them. I thought they had mustaches. I did not pick up the habit myself, but I recommend it heartily to my students who can’t read their own writing (which kind of makes it difficult for me, too). Perhaps I should stop giving my algebra students problems for which the answer is z = 2.

    - TonyB — 5/24/2005 @ 11:01 am

  19. My 2 year old said ‘no thankyou’ this morning when I asked if he wanted toast. I was so proud.

    - ebird — 5/24/2005 @ 11:36 am

  20. “For years, I’ve been saying ‘”v” as in Vagner’…”

    Which brings to mind the ancient joke (Steve Allen?):

    Answer: “9-W”
    Question: “Do you spell your name with a ‘V’, Herr Wagner?”

    - Old Grouch — 5/24/2005 @ 11:39 am

  21. Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

    Meep & Rosona - now if only there were a better way of distinguishing an ‘S’ from a hurried ‘5′. Lord knows, I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. For some mysterious reason, I picked up the habit of not only crossing my 7’s, but putting the little notch in front, too. Why? What the heck looks like a 7?

    - Independent George — 5/24/2005 @ 12:27 pm

  22. I confess that I, too, am an American 7-crosser. My stated reason is that a lot of people put serifs on their 1’s, which can make them look like uncrossed 7’s. But I fear that deep down it’s all just Anglophile posing.

    - ACW — 5/24/2005 @ 3:25 pm

  23. Independent George: I picked up the habit of not only crossing my 7’s, but putting the little notch in front, too. Why?

    Because it looks cool, that’s why. I notch my 7’s, too, but I don’t cross them. I don’t want to get too carried away.

    - TonyB — 5/24/2005 @ 4:52 pm

  24. My sister taught my niece and nephew politeness early on. The problem is that other people never picked up on it. Poor Caleb, when he was 1½, would say “T’ank you” to his other grandparents, and he would be confused and disappointed when they didn’t say “You’re welcome” in return.

    - Eric jablow — 5/24/2005 @ 6:47 pm

  25. The “9-W” joke I first encountered while listening to loads and loads of PDQ Bach. One of the more atrocious operas produced by him contains this as a line in the libretto.

    - Mikael Johansson — 5/25/2005 @ 2:31 am

  26. I’m also a 7-crosser, but I never could manage to be a consistent z-crosser. This would have helped me more than anyone else, but having *some* z’s crossed and some un means you get even more mistakes between z and 2. I do draw 8s as one circle sitting on top of the other (lifting up my pen in between and everything).

    What drove me crazy is when I would phone customer service for a USian machine where the tech was very clearly Canadian, and they’d say zee when repeating my zeds. At least they didn’t say what many Americans say, which is “so your license number is zee ee dee . . . “

    - wolfangel — 5/25/2005 @ 4:39 am

  27. For a while, when all I read was The Economist (immediately post-college: too poor to buy books, but before my parent-subsidized subscription had lapsed), I started unconsciously inserting all those excess British e’s and u’s into my writing.

    Really, guys, I’m not being pretentious! I just forgot how to write!

    (Of course, it was around then that I mastered the art of subtly ironic and mildly condescending subject lines for my emails. I haven’t quite kicked that habit yet.)

    - Independent George — 5/25/2005 @ 7:41 am

  28. I spontaneously started crossing my z’s last summer, for no apparent reason. For about four years people had been bugging me to do so to make my handwritten math less confusing… of course, now I use TEX for most math-y writeups (and the notes I take in math classes are sort of illegible anyway) but at least now my z’s are unambiguous to all. Never crossed 7’s, tho. ;-)

    - Alison — 5/25/2005 @ 8:42 am

  29. “…if only there were a better way of distinguishing an ‘S’ from a hurried ‘5′…”

    I’ve seen ‘$’ used for ‘S’ before.

    - Old Grouch — 5/25/2005 @ 11:04 am

  30. As for the z vs 2 thing…

    A couple years ago we had a complex analysis midterm where we were asked to solve the equation Cos(z) = 1/2. Now, the 2 was really jagged and hence looked like a z (although the z did have a bar across it). But to compound the confusion, the only other 2 on the sheet was a curly 2.

    So all but two of the people in the class instead tried to solve Cos(z) = 1/z - which is um, quite a lot harder to solve.

    There was nearly a riot when we went over that midterm.

    - Simon — 5/25/2005 @ 11:32 am

  31. Not that all this isn’t absolutely fascinating, but seriously, folks - thirty comments on this post? THIRTY?

    By the way, I cross neither my z’s nor my 7’s. I believe this means that I will marry a rich and handsome man, but that I will die before I hit 40.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/25/2005 @ 11:49 am

  32. I amused an interview committee by not being able to stabilise on “zee” or “zed”; I’d been in the USA for two years and had picked up some of the accent.

    - Hack — 5/25/2005 @ 1:44 pm

  33. MS: is that a challenge? We can expand beyond z (which, btw, I write in cursive to distinguish from a 2) and 7. When I was 19 I had to start putting hooks on the bottoms of the letter t to keep it from being confused with a + sign.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 5/25/2005 @ 4:27 pm

  34. Oh, it get’s even more devious. When I went through grammar school, which wasn’t called grammar school, I was taught a evil monster called the Deneilion writing system - printed, but with curlie-cues. It was supposed to get kids ready to write cursive. Sad, but true. In case this is a survey, I notch and cross 7s and occasionally cross Zees, and it’s entirely anglophonic pretention. I still can’t get myself to write that wacky European 1, though. You know, the one that looks like an uncrossed A?

    - Overread — 5/25/2005 @ 6:02 pm

  35. What is this notch on a 7 everyone is talking about?!?! it sounds almost dirty.

    WRT European 1s, I had a !!French!! physics teacher in high school whose 1s and 2s were indistinguishable. One time, he made a dismissive comment about how typically anglo-saxon my minimalist 1 was. It was a mark suitable for an illiterate culture.

    - Sam — 5/25/2005 @ 8:02 pm

  36. Oh, yes, MS, we like our scribblings. The topic has universal appeal. Anyone want to take a whack at the cursive uppercase Q that looks like the numeral 2? I was the despair of my penmanship teacher in grade school because I refused to adopt so ambiguous a glyph. Such a rebel.

    - TonyB — 5/25/2005 @ 9:13 pm

  37. Re 5s and Ss — I make my fives much as an S, but then lift my pen and make a straight bar, which usually ends up being ridiculously long, but at least is non-confusing. At least in print. This is a pretty awful write-up of it.

    - Caddie — 5/25/2005 @ 9:14 pm

  38. While we’re on the subject of distinguishing similar symbols, what about I, l, and 1? (i also sometimes falls into that set, but the dot is usually enough to disambiguate it.) I has horizontal lines at the top and bottom and l has a loop is one of the first conventions I established to keep my symbols straight. (Putting a (small!) hook at the top of 1 came a bit later.) Except when l has a hook at the bottom to match i and t, of course.
    And, backing up to phonetic disambiguation, I find myself saying bravo, victor, and delta a lot. For some reason I can make a distinctive P sound, though.
    I never could pick up the hook and/or cross on 7, even though I confused my 7s with >s (or should that be >s?) all the time.

    - dave — 5/25/2005 @ 10:07 pm

  39. For the record, the first > in my comment above was a greater-than symbol, and for the second I typed out ampersand-gt-semicolon (the HTML escape for the symbol). Both appear to get translated to the correct HTML escape, for if anybody was wondering. (But what if I wanted the &-escape to be carried through literally?)

    - dave — 5/25/2005 @ 10:10 pm

  40. I was going to office hours for a complex analysis class. The problem had a ‘(2-z)/(2+z)’ or some such truck in it, and my handwriting was/is pretty unreadble. The professor couldn’t make out what I was writing on the board, and after a couple attempts to clarify a 2 here and a z there, I finally just crossed all my zs (never use an apostrophe to denote plural, they say…) and have been doing it ever since.
    I’ve been crossing my 7s ever since my mind was blown by the 1s in Hungary (and I beleive most of Europe?) which look like 7s to an American. By the way, do Canadians (or Bolivians for that matter) mind that we use ‘Americans’ to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the Americans?

    WRT Vagner, is that Thompson with a ‘p’, as in Pneumonia, or Thomson without a ‘p’, as in Venezuela?

    - Paul — 5/25/2005 @ 10:48 pm

  41. Dave: & will give you the sign & so that you could write > in order to get the sequence >.

    I cross my Z, but not my z, I cross my 7, but don’t put the seriph on my 1. And I believe that the word Syzygy, written in curly script, with the z looking like a swoooping y with a distortion on top is one of the very prettiest words in the world. Otoh, I am a wacky, wacky Swede… =P

    - Mikael Johansson — 5/26/2005 @ 12:01 am

  42. The reason a lot of Europeans cross their sevens is to avoid confusion with their 1s, where they draw the top bar. (I just draw the straight line.)

    - wolfangel — 5/26/2005 @ 11:51 am

  43. syzygy?! syzygy?!

    Now, that’s just synchronicity, eh, MS?

    …and we’ve passed the noble comment number of 42.

    - meep — 5/26/2005 @ 12:03 pm

  44. You know, I really don’t have anything new to say. Now I’m just curious to see how many comments we can get.

    - Independent George — 5/26/2005 @ 1:38 pm

  45. meep: Syzygy. It’s used in algebraic geometry, in algebra, in biology and in astronomy.

    What is the synchronicity?

    - Mikael Johansson — 5/26/2005 @ 2:17 pm

  46. I remember at MC2003, where they suckered me into the American relay team, o so patriotically named the ZEEs. When we went to register the team with you, you said something along the lines of “I can’t in good conscience give you that name”.

    Ironically enough, that was the one time we won problem relay - in subsequent rounds we chose more politically correct names, and it all went downhill from there.

    - Tom Yue — 5/26/2005 @ 2:28 pm

  47. Meep and I attended a musical (lots of fun!) the other day, and the word “syzygy” came up an awful lot.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/26/2005 @ 2:29 pm

  48. Paul: never use an apostrophe to denote plural, they say…

    Not everyone says that in all circumstances, Paul. The plural apostrophe is traditional for letters and numerals. For example, one might consider using a’s for the plural of the letter a so as not to be thought to have written “as”. I suppose something similar applies to 1’s, which may need to be distinguished from … I dunno, electron orbitals like 1s?

    When personal computers first came out, some tried to applied the plural apostrophe to PC, but that just played hob with the possessive, since PCs are allowed to have attributes for which the possessive is needed: the PC’s monitor. Unfortunately, the armies of the ill-informed have generalized the plural apostrophe into all sorts of places where it is contradindicated, so perhaps it’s time to abandon it altogether (as people are also doing with the Oxford comma, which I continue to defend).

    So, how many comments do we have now?

    - TonyB — 5/26/2005 @ 3:15 pm

  49. Commas are truly a lost art. I want to hand out commas and periods at the beginning of classes and demand that students learn how to use them. IM-speak doesn’t cut it in class!

    - Overread — 5/26/2005 @ 9:41 pm

  50. The Oxford comma is sometimes useful and sometimes it just muddles up the sentence. Use whichever one is appropriate, even in the same text as you’ve used the other. Freedom for punctuation!

    - wolfangel — 5/27/2005 @ 8:24 am

  51. +1 vote for crossing Zs, notching 7s, and the Oxford comma, which I have cleverly managed to work into this sentence.

    -1 vote for crossing 7s and using apostrophes to pluralize abbreviations.

    An enjoyable book by someone who is even nuttier about the subject than I: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

    - Whatever — 5/27/2005 @ 1:49 pm

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