Not many letters are stand-ins for entire concepts. If you draw a person with a massive “R” next to them, it wouldn’t make any sense. But the letter “Z” is a shorthand for “sleep” that pretty much everyone has learned to accept. Do sleeping people really go zzz, though?
Well, no. If you hear someone sleeping making a noise that sounds like a human holding the letter “z,” they should probably see a doctor. There’s a reason why zzz has caught on like it has, and it has to do with two linguistic needs: visual shorthands for hard-to-depict concepts, and the attempt to capture non-human noises using the alphabet.
A Refresher On Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is that long Greek word meaning “a word that sounds like what it describes.” Some of the earliest examples we humans encounter are animal noises, from the oink of a pig to the bark of a dog, and so on.
The word itself, dating back from ancient Greek, gives a clue to the fact that onomatopoeia goes back a long way. There are even some who say onomatopoeia was the earliest human language.
Onomatopoeia, in theory, is simple. You hear a noise, and then you translate it into human language. Oatmeal dropping on the ground? Splat. An explosion? Ka-boom. Nails on a chalkboard? Screech. Easy-peasy.
Hmm. But Does Onomatopoeia Work Like That, Really?
Or perhaps the peasy is not so easy. Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to write the sound of a lightsaber. That’s what a bunch of Reddit users did in 2015, and the results were predictably eclectic. Here are a few of the answers given:
- Vrãu, vrãu
The list goes on. And while this might be a seemingly silly example, there are more common examples of disagreement in onomatopoeia. All you have to do is look at another language. Dogs in English go woof, but in German they go wau wau, in Turkish hev hev, and in Italian bau bau. Some of them are similar, but they’re not the same.
The problem comes down to the Latin alphabet being designed explicitly to capture human noises. The “s,” to take one example, is not an arbitrary sound, it’s the sound of air passing between the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. There are some sounds in nature that can also sound like an “s” — a radiator forcing hot air through a small opening, a snake hissing — but that’s a coincidence. For the most part, onomatopoeia is peoples’ best guess at what a sound would look like written down. People only settled on “woof” because enough people agreed that it makes sense, not because it perfectly captures the sound a dog makes.
Onomatopoeia is a contentious issue in linguistics for many of the above reasons. One of the factors important to language — at least according to some — is that vocabulary is arbitrary. That means the words we choose to describe an object have no basis in what the object is. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Onomatopoeia is a possible exception to this rule, though, because it’s not fully arbitrary; one example of this is that a chickadee is named after the sound it makes (“chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee”). Still, other linguists would say that this is in itself arbitrary and humans are hearing what they choose to hear. There are lots of arguments on both sides, but because this is allegedly an article about the zzz sound we’ll leave it at that for now.
The Birth Of Zzz
The great thing about written language is that it provides a history of terms. The Washington City Paper did a thorough job searching for the first instance of Z being used for sleep. The author of the piece, Cecil Adams, quickly realized that there was something that all of these early instances of zzz had in common: comics.
Adams, scrolling through early 20th century comics, eventually landed on a comic from the Katzenjammer Kids. The comic, started in 1897 by Rudolph Dirks, was one of the earliest successes in American comics, though Dirks himself was German. He did a lot to create the medium as it exists today. In one of his comics from August 2, 1903 is likely the first instance of zzz meaning sleep. Like many things, it didn’t catch on immediately — there were other instances of people using other letter combinations to represent sleep, like “g-r-r-r-k” — but it slowly pervaded comics until it became the most common symbol.
It may seem like a leap to go from linguistics to comics, but comic writers have long been onomatopoetic innovators. Unlike novels, where authors can write “the sound of a fist” and the reader would get it, comics needed to somehow represent that sound. That’s why superhero comics are known for panels featuring bang, kablam, kablooey, etc. Unlike any other medium, having a written way to convey sound is useful in comics. And differentiating between a person who is sleeping and someone lying down with their eyes closed turned out to be useful.
We probably can’t jump into the head of the early users of zzz, so there’s no knowing why they chose that letter combination over all others. Sometimes it gets conflated with snoring, but if you’ve ever spent a night near someone snoring you’ll hear that it doesn’t sound as delicate as zzz. What we do know is that by 1924 it had earned an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, indicating widespread acceptance. Since the early 20th century, zzz has spread beyond the United States, and is recognizable even in countries that don’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Japanese. The Washington City Paper also reported alternatives in other languages, like chrrr in German and rooooon in Spanish, but none matches the ubiquity of the Z.
As mentioned earlier, onomatopoeia is kind of a random process. Even if not everyone makes a literal buzzing zzz sound while asleep, it’s good enough for the comic artists who need a quick and easy symbol. And once it was accepted by enough people, it didn’t matter if the sound was accurate. As far as getting a point across to readers, sleeping people really do go zzz.