Oxford dictionary has a new last word - zyzzyva

NEW YORK • The Oxford English Dictionary has a new last word.

Bet you cannot pronounce it.

But the word - zyzzyva - is a favourite for eighth-grader Samara St Louis, who was cramming for a spelling bee in 2012 when she stumbled upon it. "It is the last word in the dictionary and it's fun to say and it's fun to spell," she said.

Zyzzyva often appears as the final entry in many English dictionaries.

But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered by many as the standard-bearer of dictionaries, ended with zythum, which refers to an ancient Egyptian malt beer.

That is no longer the case.

The dictionary just announced several new additions to its vast pages, including zyzzyva which now has the distinction of being the OED's last word. It is a noun, pronounced "zih- zih-vah" and defined as "a genus of tropical weevils native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees".

A weevil is a sort of beetle, generally small and herbivorous.

The most familiar is a small brown variety referred to as a rice weevil. As its nickname suggests, these are often found in stored rice.

Generally, according to pest control company Orkin, "if the weevils manage to find an opening and invade the home, the home owner often finds hundreds of insects crawling on the walls and windowsills".

It is much less likely you will find zyzzyva in your home.

The insect was discovered in Brazil in 1922 by Irish entomologist Thomas Lincoln Casey, who gave it the strange name. The origin of the word is unknown and it seemingly has no etymology.

Many different theories exist, however, which the OED listed in its blog. Some think Casey was attempting to create a word that, when spoken aloud, mimicked the sound made by these insects.

Others, however, think that he was merely having a laugh and came up with the strange combination of letters - so many z's - as a practical joke, knowing it would then be the final word in most English dictionaries.

If that is true, he was not incorrect. As the OED blog stated, "zyzzyva owes much of its currency in English to its notoriety as the last entry in various dictionaries, the ranks of which now include the OED".

Indeed, others beside Samara seemed to have embraced the word. A San Francisco arts and letters journal called Zyzzyva was founded in 1985. It was one of the first in the United States to publish Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who is known for works such as 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood.

Its name certainly seems to be connected to the bug, as images of a weevil with a "Z" slapped on its fat abdomen appears across the journal's website.

If nothing else, Scrabble players should take note. The word, with no special boosters, is worth 43 points.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2017, with the headline 'Oxford dictionary has a new last word - zyzzyva'. Print Edition | Subscribe