Q&A: Why do we use “zzz” for sleep?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we need beauty sleep…

Q: Hi AWC, did you have a nice holiday?

A: Yes, thanks. You?

Q: I managed to catch up on a lot of sleep. In fact, that’s my question this week.

A: Whether you should sleep? The answer is a resounding YES.

Q: Hardy ha ha. No, I was thinking about how we draw someone sleeping or even emojis – it’s always with a bunch of Zs after it. We even say “I’m going to catch some zees”… But why Z?

A: Interesting question. And in a world where we here in Australia normally would say “zed” for the last letter of the alphabet, we all universally say “zee” when referring to the sleep kind. Curious.

Q: I know right? But apart from the words “doze” and “snooze”, I couldn’t really see any Z connection… What’s the story?

A: A bedtime story?

Q: Well yeah, I guess it is.

A: So obviously the concept of sleep is not new – most animals require it. The word itself made its way to Old English from German (“schlaf”) and Dutch (“slep”) – giving us “slᴂp” – with the a and e mushed together, seen in texts as early as the year 900. The adjectives “asleep” and “sleepy” followed in the 1200s, while “slack” – meaning languid or sluggish – had the same root origin.

Q: So what happened next?

A: Next stop on the Nocturnal Express was the noun “sleep” becoming personified in English – and this happened around the 1500s. 

Q: Personified?

A: Yes – from Greek and Roman influences, much like how Death (cloaked, with sickle) or Father Time and Mother Nature became “persons”. For sleep, the Greeks had Hypnos – son of Night and brother of Death. It was here that English got words such as “hypnosis”.

Q: You are getting sleeeeeeeepy…

A: That’s the one. Swinging pocket watches, acting like a chicken, snap my fingers, wide awake. All that.

Q: And the Romans?

A: Their God of Sleep was called Somnus. Again, it gave us familiar words such as “insomnia” and fancy words like “somnambulist” – meaning someone who sleepwalks.

Q: Ugh why wouldn’t someone just say “sleep walk” – so pretentious.
A: Today maybe, but “somnambulist” was the origin term, first used in 1747. The term “sleep walking” wasn’t actually used for another century.

Q: Okay fine. So what about “doze”?

A: It had Scandinavian origins and turned up, along with “dozy”, around 1700. Although some say it may be much older and may have come from the word “dizzy”.

Q: And “snooze”?

A: No one is quite sure where this word came from – some suggesting it was formed from the sound of snoring. It entered English in the 1790s. But we wouldn’t get its “snooze alarm” meaning until 1965.

Q: Wow, to think that before the ‘60s people had to find other ways to kid themselves about getting up… 

A: Yes, they probably just got up and got stuff done.

Q: So, no mention of “zzzzzs” yet. When do they show up?

A: The idea first appeared in 1852 to illustrate a sound in nature: The dry z-ing of the locust is heard” (Henry David Thoreau). 

Q: A plague of locusts? Just what we need. 

A: Yet it was 1903 when “Zs” were first used to illustrate sleep, in a comic strip called Katzenjammer Kids. The artists needed to show an old man asleep in a hammock and went with three Z-Z-Zs floating above him. 

Q: Why Zs?

A: This choice was partly in relation to that locust-like buzzing sound of snoring – much like how the word “snooze” originated. But it was also related to the Z-shape and snoring sound made when someone sawed wood. In fact, early cartoons often continued to show a saw cutting through a log to represent sleep before the Zs won out. In America, to “sawing logs” or “sawing wood” is a term for snoring.

Q: I never “saw” that coming!

A: Groan. The idea of Zs denoting sleep took hold fast – and by the 1930s, many publications used anything between three and 10 “Zs” to represent sleeping. (Later cartoons like Peanuts and Garfield famously made do with just one giant “Z”.) Not all comics conformed though – with famous strip “Dagwood” opting instead to show loud snoring with an onomatopoeic “SKNXX-X”, while Japanese cartoons simply use three bubbles.

Q: Fascinating! So, what about the phrase “Catch some zees”? When did that show up?

A: For that, you’ll need to set your snooze alarm for the ‘60s. Visually the idea of Z-Z-Z meaning sleep was already established, but it wasn’t until 1963 that American student slang turned them into “zees” and people started “catching zees” (or “catching Zs”) much like people would “catch a wink” to also mean sleep.

Q: So we’ve had Zs for sleep for about 100 years but have only been “catching zees” for about half that time?

A: That’s right!

Q: And it was part onomatopoeic and part sawing technique that got us there.

A: Yep!

If ever there was a topic to put people to sleep, it’s this one.

A: Very true. “Zee” you next week!

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