The Z of death

From Andras Kornai on Facebook today:

AK: As they say on Sesame Street: brought to you by the letter Z!

(#1) A tank (Andras says it’s a Pantsir missile system) with the glyph Z on it — not a letter in the Cyrillic alphabet (in which both Ukrainian and Russian are written) and now symbolizing the Russian iron fist of death

Livia Polanyi [pursuing the Sesame Street theme]: Zombie zombie zombie starts with Z

AZ > LP: The letter Z long ago became part of my identity, a symbol of who I was. Now it’s become the equivalent of a swastika, and I feel that I have personally been assaulted, dirtied, and shamed. (I manage to surmount Z is for Zombie as just a piece of cultural silliness. But the Z on the tanks is, literally, dead serious.)

I’ve posted several times here on my attachment to the letter Z, to things and people with Z names, and to Zwicky-named folk around the world. On the last, from my 5/22/19 posting “Tsviki from Belarus”:

over the years, Zwickys have moved from Canton Glarus not only to all parts of Switzerland, and from Switzerland north and west in Europe (and then further west to the Americas), but also to the east, all the way to the Slavic lands — specifically, to what is now Ukraine and Russia. And also to what is now Belarus. Where we find the Tsviki — Цвики — family.

More on my name below. Meanwhile, back on Facebook:

AK > AZ: Rest assured that “Z is for Zwicky, that’s good enough for me, Zwicky Zwicky Zwicky starts with Z” will be again sung by linguists all over the world once this terrible war is over!

AZ: Follow-up [to my original FB posting]: I have nerved myself to blog something on this. Z, of course, is for ZELENSKYY, may his shadow never grow less. (On actual Sesame Street, Z was once memorably for Zipper, in a cute rap song for kids that managed, of course, to avoid zipper flies entirely.)

Sesame Street’s “Z is for Zipper” segment can be viewed on this site. The text there:

a catchy rap to help you practice your ABCs. Remind yourself that Z is for Zipper and be amazed by all the zippers on kids’ jackets, hats, shoes, and more.

(There are, inevitably, dark “Z is for Zombie” take-offs of Sesame Street.)

Then I continued on FB with some notes for people who aren’t Cyrillically adept.

And Zelenskyy’s name in Cyrillic letters begins with the letter Ze, whose glyph looks like a reversed epsilon —

(#2) The Cyrillic letter Ze, representing the consonant sound [z]

The Cyrillic alphabet has no Z glyph, and its final letter Ya / Ja is a glyph that looks like a reversed R (while Ze comes pretty early in the alphabet):

(#3) The Cyrillic letter Ya / Ja, representing the sound-sequence [ja]

Hana Filip > AZ: Some people believe that Z stands for Zapad ‘West’. The Russian military marked the military equipment dedicated to the invasion of Ukraine [to the West of Russia] with Z. [The Z] also stands for the enemy, which for Putin is not only Ukraine, and Zelenskyy, but also, and perhaps, above all, “the West”, to which Ukraine clearly leaned.

Symbolic values of the last. Of the last letter of the Greek alphabet —

(#4) The Greek letter named omega (O mega ‘big O’, pronounced as long [ɔ:] or [o:] — versus omicron (O mikron ‘little O’, pronounced as short [o])

Of Z, the last letter of the Latin alphabet. And of Я, the last letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. The last thing can be seen as the end, the depths, everything having been exhausted: that’s all there is, there isn’t any more. On the other hand, the last thing can be seen as the culmination, the summit of all there is.

As a Z person, I opt for the latter view: Ω Z Я, the best we can be.

My name. The two parts, separately, and then the combination (which is entirely unremarkable, though a bit rustic and old-fashioned, in Switzerland (which I keep typing as Zwitzerland!).

People in the U.S. today report, variously, that Arnold sounds like an old man’s name; an old-fashioned name; nerdy and ineffectual; Jewish. Many associate it with Ahnuld (Schwarzenegger). People group it with the names Arthur, Albert, and Alfred; or Ronald, Donald, and Harold (and often confuse it with one of these names). Some people think it’s intrinsically funny, like:

Eustace, Quincy, Cornelius, Zebulon, Boaz, Orson, Barnaby, Gilmore, Gaylon, Rector, Athol, Ezekiel, Achilles, Silas, Caleb, Micah, Seymour, Phineas, Zebediah

(these are, of course, matters of personal taste and experience).

Then the last name. To start with, word-initial Z  is rare in English; and most words with it stand out — as imitative or symbolic (zoom, zip, zing, zigzag); or as foreign- or odd-sounding (zebra, zombie, zany, zinc, zero, zebu, zwieback, zenith, zeugma, zephyr, zoo, not to mention zax, zarf, and zhuzh). Just a few (zest, zeal, zone) might be unremarkable. Then the initial ZW is odd phonotactically, and that gives a lot of people pause. And the whole thing sounds Slavic, which apparently pushes a panic button for a lot of Americans. So they founder, reject the name as unpronounceable and call me Mr. Arnold; or string the pieces into something that suits them better, like Zickwich (so spelled, and so pronounced).

People have mocked my FN and LN separately, and together, since I was a child, which has only made me more mulish, more proud of its recalcitrant Swissness, more viscerally attached to the Z. (I usually suppress my middle name, Melchior, so as not to incite another wave of laughter, but I’m sentimental about it too, because it was my grandfather’s name.)

Very many years ago, while I was drinking some friendly beers with linguists at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap (by the University of Chicago), a rather drunken young man from the neighborhood decided to get acquainted with the linguist interlopers. Approached me, asked my name aggressively, got it, and broke into paroxysms of incredulous laughter. “Go on, nobody’s name is Arnold Zwicky!”, like it had to be a joke, a preposterous name I’d made up (as W.C. Fields was wont to do). Zebulon Heffelfinger, whatever. Seeing the look in my eye, several linguists dragged him away from me and told him he’d better shut up. They might even have used the magic phrase my family and friends have learned to employ in such situations: Don’t get him angry; you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

For I am truly an amiable, empathetic person, but dangerous as a nest of hornets if you stir me up. Only once as a kid did a bully try to teach the fairy-boy a lesson, before I told him in red-faced fury that if he so much as touched me I would smash his face in and do my best to kill him, and he saw that I was crazy enough to do that. I still got plenty of verbal taunting, there’s not much to be done about that, but no one ever tried to lay a hand on me after that. You don’t assault my body, and (I was astonished to discover at Jimmy’s) you don’t assault my name, either.

Now, it seems, I interpreted those Russian swastika-Z’s as assaults too and responded with rage. Impotent rage, unfortunately, since the tanks are in Ukraine and I’m in California, so I was an emotional mess for a while this morning. But Andras offered me the balm of friendly silliness, and Livia and Hana treated me as a rational person so I had to behave like one. Life went on. My daughter arrived with one of my favorite brunches and we managed to talk in measured way about how I might handle the tsunami of medical disasters washing over me. I haven’t advanced on today’s official writing project — about a truly wonderful Bizarro cartoon that manages to combine the Pillsbury Doughboy, self-rising flour, the Roman Catholic confessional, and the language of male masturbation — didn’t advance on it because I fell into writing this posting, but still it’s been  good day.

But my name, again. Where does it come from? (Stay with me. This is going to circle back to Ukraine, incredibly enough).

We can track the name back in Switzerland 500+ years ago, but eventually even Swiss record-keeping breaks down. The name doesn’t look very Germanic, and it does look at least superficially Slavic. Very many years ago, as a grad student at MIT, I ended up taking courses in Indo-European historical linguistics — extremely far from my scholarly interests (well, I wrote a dissertation on Sanskrit, but it was really a dissertation about the methodology of generative phonology, using Sanskrit as its exemplary language), but somehow it happened — from one of the great 20th-century figures of the field, who was visiting at Harvard and MIT from Poland. Jerzy Kuryłowicz, and if you think people have trouble with my name, you have no idea (some people just called him Curly, behind his back, but I had mastered a pretty good rendition of it in Polish, which I don’t speak at all, by treating the whole busines as a phonetics exercise).

The class meetings tended to be mysterious (to me, at any rate). JK commanded material from the texts in all the standard ancient IE languages (plus Hittite) and deployed data from, oh, 15 or so modern IE languages, without glosses (because, well, everybody knows Danish, Romantsch, Armenian, Ukrainian, Pashto, whatever). It sounds awful, but in fact it more or less worked, even for the woefully underprepared AZ — because JK was an extraordinarily nice person, attentive to his students’ reactions, and because he was also bent on advancing several of his theoretical interests (on analogy in historical change, and on the case systems of languages), and from this I absorbed a lot that worked its way into my own thinking later in life. Early on, we started having brief chats, out of class, about the etymology of the name Zwicky, which he was familiar with as a common German Swiss name but hadn’t thought seriously about before. He worked out several possible Slavic etymologies (along with an account of Slavic populations moving west from, roughly, north of the Black Sea), but was never able to nail down enough of the details to publish anything. Still, it was, as we now say, Awesome.

Ok, here’s the payoff. In my cobbling together of material from the Wikipedia article on JK:

Jerzy Kuryłowicz (26 August 1895 – 28 January 1978). Born in Stanislau, Austria-Hungary (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), …. [a great] Polish historical linguist [primarily of Indo-European languages, notable for advancing studies of the IE laryngeals], structuralist and language theoretician [especially known for his Six Laws of Analogy and his treatment of grammatical and concrete cases].

Born in what is now Ukraine, of a Polish family, educated abroad (all over the place), then returning to Poland — where he spent the rest of his life in a series of distinguished academic appointments. Passionately devoted to Poland, and somehow weathering all the storms of central Europe in the 20th century. I never asked him how he managed, because it was clear at the time that, even in Cambridge MA, you never knew who might be listening. I could be as youthfully political as I wanted, with only mild consequences, but he was in his late 60s and had to go home to Poland. (There were the examples of the ruthlessly suppressed uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, pour encourager les autres.) Then he died well before Poland transitioned into an independent republic in the 1990s.

And now we weep again.

7 Responses to “The Z of death”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    This post evoked for me two personal memories involving you, which I hope will give you more amusement than offense:

    (1) (about your name) I fondly remember the bartender at the hotel in Minneapolis declining my attempt to pay for my and my husband’s drinks, on the grounds that “Mr. Z’wicky” had already paid for all the drinks; that apostrophe is my attempt to indicate the ghost of a syllable that he put between the z and the w.

    (2) (“Don’t get him angry; you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.”) Of course I think about the accordion player from that same weekend.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh, chuckles, not offense. The accordion-player episode, in particular, was an event both splendid and ridiculous.

      Somewhere I have a posting (maybe on Language Log) on all the things people do with the not-quite-fully-English word-initial /zw/. An actual inserted unaccented vowel (making the name clearly trisyllabic) is probably the most common therapy for the /zw/, giving a name that people spell Zawicky, Zewicky, or Zowicky (all of them versions of a Slavic surname). But quite commonly the adjustment is a much subtler phonetic one, giving a very brief (and only lightly voiced) syllabic w, which is presumably what your keen ears heard in Minneapolis.

  2. Mark Mandel Says:

    I don’t recall ever finding the initial /zw/ in “Zwicky” any harder to pronounce than its unvoiced counterpart /sw/ in “Swiss”. But then, I’m hardly an average sample: not only was I a linguistics student when I first encountered your name, I’ve been a language geek since before I can remember.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      As I said, not-quite-fully-English (but it’s close). Conversion of /zw/ to /sw/ is a fairly common fix, in fact. But it’s close enough that it’s pretty easy for English speakers to surmount the small difficulty it presents (and you’re a linguist and a language geek, as you say).

      Actual Swiss people often ask me why I don’t say my name “correctly” (when speaking English); the [zw] (instead of [cv] or [cf], where [c] is a voiceless alveolar affricate) sounds truly weird to them. Well, [c] — [ts] functioning as a single segment — by itself is more challenging to English speakers than [zw] is (the word-initial onset of TSETSE is difficult), and then a word-initial cluster like [cv] is much much worse.

      I can’t recall ever having had trouble pronouncing the initial [cv], but then that was the way my Swiss grandparents pronounced the family name, unless they very carefully worked at achieving a [zw]. On the other hand, I never used the [cv] pronunciation myself, because that would have marked me as a foreigner or a really affected language snob.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    Another piece of junk lying around in my mind, relating to initial zw, but in German, where it’s quite common: I once constructed in my mind a pseudo-Wagnerian bit of text (exaggerating Wagner’s use of the type of alliteration known in German as Stabreim), something Mime might have said in giving details of how he was made to forge the Tarnhelm:

    “Zwar zwangen mich zweiundzwanzig zwickende Zwerge zwischen Zorn and Zweifel zum Zweck.” – (Indeed, twenty-two pinching dwarves forced me between anger and doubt to the goal.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Lovely. When I first studied German, I was naturally drawn to ZW words. I specifically recall being delighted at discovering Zwerg — via the Seven Dwarfs/Dwarves — and deeply appreciated the number 22.

  4. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Not many English words start with Z, and even fewer end with Z. The longest that I can find include MEGAHERTZ, SLIVOVITZ, RAZZAMATAZZ and WELTSCHMERZ, and most of these are only recent additions to English.

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