You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Nine

Zzxjoanw – a lexicographical hoax, 1903

For those who love to play Scrabble words which are a jumble of consonants, particularly ones containing z and x, are manna from heaven. Anyone who had the tiles to make Zzxjoanw would have scooped the jackpot but the story behind the word shows that not all was what it seemed.

Rupert Hughes, an American novelist and composer, compiled an encyclopaedia of classical music in 1903. Within this tome was a sort of dictionary giving definitions of and tips on the pronunciation of non-English terms that a musician or music-lovers may encounter. The final entry in this section was the tongue-twister, zzxjoanx. According to Hughes it was a Maori word and quite a versatile one it was too. It had three meanings, two of which had musical connotations, a fife or a drum, and one, slightly incongruously, meaning the conclusion. The word was retained in several reprints of the book and even escaped excision following Deems Taylor and Russell Kerr major revision of the Music Lover’s Encyclopaedia in 1954.

The first hint that there may be a problem with the word came in 1974 in Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words. But it was not the word itself that came under Mrs Byrne’s microscope. It was accepted as a Maori word for a drum. Rather it was Hughes’ proposed pronunciation. Hughes had claimed, somewhat bizarrely, that this jumble of letters sounded like shaw. Mrs Byrne’s dictionary begged to differ, proposing the somewhat more believable ziks-joan.

It was not, however, until November 1976 that the extent of Hughes’ hoax was revealed. Philip Cohen was sufficiently intrigued or troubled by the word that he decided to delve into the Maori language, publishing his results in an essay entitled What’s the Good Word, published in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. The starting point in Coen’s investigation, quite logically, was the Maori language itself. There he discovered that they use just fourteen letters and that all their words ended in a vowel. It will come as no surprise that the letters z, x and j were not among the fourteen they used and, of course, the word did not end in a vowel.

The next problem was that of all the Polynesian peoples the Maoris were unique in not using a drum in their music. They kept time by stamping their feet or slapping their thighs. Indeed, what musical instruments they had were hollowed out of wood or bone and blown, although they did have a single-stringed instrument, the ku. And in any case, even if they had a word for a drum would they have also used to describe a fife?

Then there was the problem of the alleged third meaning of the word, conclusion. Was it more than a coincidence that this definition was the final word of the lexicon? Cohen not unreasonably concluded that the word was a figment of Hughes’ imagination.

But why did he go to the trouble of inventing the world?

Some conspiracy theorists think that Hughes was having a dig at none other than George Bernard Shaw. At the time GBS was an eminent music critic and an impassioned campaigner for spelling reform. Shaw had even invented his own word, ghoti. This may explain why Hughes suggested that the word was pronounced shaw. But joan could not have been a reference to Shaw’s play St Joan as this was not performed until 1923, twenty years after Hughes’ invention of the word. However, it is possible that Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary recognised and played on the joke.

The other theory is that Hughes was just interested to see whether he could get away with this bit of nonsense. Maori was an obscure language, there were very few native speakers at the time, and Hughes’ intended readership were unlikely to either notice it or have the knowledge to challenge it.

Either way, Hughes got away with it for seventy-three years.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

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