Looking at this classic cartoon, the zzzzs say it all; Jerry’s not just relaxing or lying down, he’s asleep. We all recognise it but really, why should a line of the letter z suggest that someone is sleeping? Personally, if I were trying to represent a snoring figure, I’d use something throatier, like ghhuh or schhuuh. After all, the French use rrroo or roon and the Germans use chrr, all of which seem much closer to the actual sound. Say zzz aloud and it just doesn’t quite sound lethargic enough.
In reality, using zzz to represent sleeping is a pretty recent invention. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded onomatopoeic use of zzz comes from 1852 in reference to the buzzing of locusts but it wasn’t until 1924 that it was a recognised symbol of snoring.
Unsurprisingly, the comic strip was the main architect of zzz. Yet before the sleeping sound was standardised, practically the whole alphabet could be used, such as grrrkk, zcrrkk and urrawk. This raises the question of why it was zzz that won out.
One theory sounds like it might be bizarre enough to be true: before a way of depicting sleeping with letters was established, cartoons would use the image of someone sawing wood since it sounds like the noise made when snoring. The motion made when sawing wood, particularly with a hand saw, was across, down and across, just like the shape of z. Eventually, the letter representing the movement replaced the little picture of a saw altogether and zzz was born.
And on that note, Word Stories and its author are off to catch some well-deserved, post-A-to-Z-Challenge zees.