Josna Rege

208. Zee, Zed, Go to Bed

In 1950s, 1980s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, India, Music, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2013 at 10:54 pm

There is a famous song for learning your ABC’s, to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” (You can listen to Mozart’s virtuoso variations on it here.) When I first came to the United States, American children used to sing the ABC song like this:

Y & Zee

Now I know my ABC
Tell me what you think of me.

But sometime in the 1970’s or 1980’s, or so I imagine, my generation of New Age parents felt that this version was too evaluative and could place an unacceptable degree of performance anxiety on their children. Their new version, now the dominant one, ended like this:

Now I know my ABC
Next time won’t you sing with me?

This child-friendly version presented the teacher and the children as equals, joining together in a shared learning enterprise.

The British version of ABCD that I was raised on was altogether different, so I searched YouTube for it. Aha! Surely the ABCD song on the British Council website would be the traditional version. But no, it was the new America version trying pathetically and disappointingly to preserve a thin veneer of Englishness:
 nothing but the American version with the British Zed tacked on.

In my childhood, children were taught their place in no uncertain terms:

XY Zed

XY Zed
Sugar on your bread
All good children go to bed.

No nonsense about sharing or equality. After reciting their lessons, good children will go off to bed as they are told to do, and without a fuss. No ifs, ands, or buts. Still, unlike the saccharine-sweet American version that now seems to have gained near-universal status, English children were compensated with bread, butter, and sugar. Delicious, and right before bed, too.  So crunchy and calming. So good for the teeth.

I searched the entire Internet in vain for my childhood version. The closest I could come was this bossy-pants of a little Indian girl who recited, sing-song style:

XY Zed
Sugar on the bread
If you don’t like it you can go to bed.

In India, as in Canada and many other ex-colonial countries, many people still say Zed, although Zee is gaining ground.



In regard to the pronunciation of the last letter of the English alphabet, take your pick, but I know what I like. Zed is the older form, apparently derived from the Greek Zeta (which is the sixth letter of its alphabet, far from holding pride of place at the end), in its turn taken from the Phoenician Zayid. The U.S. Zee, it seems, is a late- 17th Century English dialectal form brought over by early English colonists.

While I was looking all this up, I discovered that Izzard is an old form of Zed. This gives me an entirely gratuitous excuse to include Eddie Izzard, one of my favorite stand-up comedians, discoursing here on British and American English.

And while I’m on the subject of British comedians, what better way to close out the 2013 April A-to-Z Challenge than with the A-to-Zed of Monty Python?


CODA: In the The Apple Pie ABCthe alphabet doesn’t end with Z, but with ampersand. Taking its cue, as the 2013 Blogging from A to Z Challenge comes to an end, I will do the same, and hope thereby to be granted a continuance. Thanks to the organizers and to all the bloggers I visited, and who visited me in turn. Do come again.


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  1. please unsubscribe me. Not possible to do thru wordpress


  2. So many different versions of ABC. I remember it differently. It just repeats “now I know my ABCs ABCDEFG”. Congrats on making it through the ABCs!

    • Thanks very much and the same to you! I’ve been back to your site since the Challenge ended and want to read some of the back posts. Yes, so many versions. I hadn’t heard your before, and like it–still more repetition, which children like, and is one of the ways they learn. All the best, J

  3. Beautiful design of the ampersand. The sugar on bread’s effect on teeth was funny! Well done at getting to the end with such a cogent set of essays achieved. E

    • Yes, isn’t that ampersand beautiful? It’s Caslon 540 Italic–I ought to have labeled it. Thank you for having been such a terrific reader throughout this crazy month. Now I will need to slow down to my old pace for a while, and look forward to a little more time to do other things, including go back to The Pom-Pom Letters.

      • Thanks. I may well have to make enquiries from you as to do a link (which sounds dumb but I’m not too good at IT) and photo credits/captions.
        I’ve made an elementary mistake (using a slow net book in a WiFi cafe) and got the whole of my latest post in italics! Just corrected it, puff!

  4. Wonderful Post Josna. I found it fascinating – thank you.

  5. Very good. We had a Canadian uncle who we loved to hear say zed. Any excuse would do. I especially remember zed-b-t powder for babies. So glad to meet you at this challenge, will be following along with whatever comes next. Congrats on finishing.

    • Getting to these comments belatedly and piecemeal. Isn’t it interesting how a simple thing like the difference between zee and zed can delight children—and us all? It’s small things like this which really make me feel that I’m in a foreign country when I cross over into Canada. Zed-b-t sounds funny! On the other hand there’s a foldout bed in England called a zed bed which rolls off the tongue nicely.

  6. Very Nice Josna.
    Congratulations on finishing the mission so elegantly. I still have to digest some of the earlier postings but learnt a few lessons from what I managed to spend some time on. I also suffer from the Zed and refuse to accept the Zee.
    Cheers for your break

  7. This was so interesting! I never realized there were other versions to the abc song. Congrats on completing the challenge. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jessica. Yes, it’s so interesting, when one has learned a particular version of a song, or a particular tune, to find out that there are a myriad of other versions, and that each person thinks her or his version is the “real” one. Congrats to you, too. I like your blog and your energy and will return to it.

  8. The Eddie Izzard bit is hilarious! Everything about it, but especially the ending: “The Dutch speak 4 languages and smoke marijuana!” I tend to think of Americans as being especially bad about learning other languages, but I guess the English can be just as bad. I’m impressed at how well they mangle French when they Anglicize it: GAT-eau, CA-fe, GAR-age. I wonder if it started out as deliberate taunting during the Anglo-Norman period and then just stayed on, revived every now and then by another war with the French.

    Anyway, you’ve come to a resounding finish: Congratulations! Well done! Love the ampersand, too. I’ll look forward to more of your posts after you’ve had a rest! And you can start with any letter of the alphabet you want to. : )

    • As soon as I learned that “Izzard” was another word for “zed” I had to add the link. Any excuse to watch Eddie Izzard! BTW, I realized that I had linked to an incomplete clip I’ve now changed to one that included the whole skit. I like your taunting theory. Remember Eric Idle playing a French taunter-of-English-pig-dogs in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

      Doing the A-Z was crazy while it lasted, but now it’s over I miss it! Thanks so much for your comments–what a treat to receive a bunch of them all at once today!

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