It might be one of the least-frequently used letters in the English language (you can expect it to start less than 0.5 percent of the words in a standard dictionary), but the letter Z is responsible for some fantastic words, from zaptieh (that’s a Turkish police officer) and zardozi (a type of embroidery using metallic thread) to zambomba (a Spanish percussion instrument) and zalambdodont (a creature with V-shaped ridged molar teeth).
As great as those words are, they’re not exactly the most useful of Z-words to drop into everyday conversation (depending, of course, on how many people with V-shaped molars you know). So why not try using one of the 40 zazzy Z-words listed here?
Zabernism is a German-origin word for the overuse or unnecessarily aggressive use of military power. To zabernize, meanwhile, is to oppress militarily. Both words are named for the town of Saverne in Alsace, eastern France, where a young cobbler was needlessly killed by a German soldier in 1912.
Borrowed into English from Yiddish (and descended from a German word meaning “juicy”), zaftig refers to a woman who is plump or curvaceous.
To “confuse by contradictory assertions,” according to the English Dialect Dictionary.
An old southwest English dialect word meaning “to heat something over a fire for a long time, but not to boil it.”
Zanyism is literally the behavior or quality of being “zany” or clownish—or, in other words, horseplay or tomfoolery.
Zarnder was a hairstyle, popular in the 1900s, in which a woman wore loose ringlet of hair over one shoulder. It derives from a slang corruption of the name of Queen Alexandra, the wife and consort of King Edward VII. She popularized the style.
An isolated sandy inlet or cave in a cliff on the coast is a zawn.
An old 18th-century word for a seamstress or dressmaker.
Slang from the 1960s for something showy or colorful. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it might be a combination of “zippy” and “jazzy.”
A South African slang word describing anything trashy or commonplace. It derives from the name of the Ford Zephyr, a car apparently once popular among working-class South Africans.
If zeitgeist literally means “time spirit” in German, then a zeitgeber is literally a “time-giver.” In biology, it refers to any cyclical, recurring event, like the changing of the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun, that provides an organism with a natural timeframe or cue.
A zelatrix is a female zelator—namely, a zealous supporter or advocate.
Derived from the Greek word for “to strike,” zelotypia is a 17th-century word for what we would now more likely call jealousy.
A figure of speech in which one word is used in such a way that it refers to two others in the same sentence is called a zeugma (which is the Greek word for a yoke, in the sense of two things being linked together as one). Dickens was the master of the zeugma, thanks to fantastically descriptive sentences like “Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.”
If you’re zidle-mouthed then you’re wry-mouthed, or habitually hold your mouth to one side in a curious, indecisive fashion.
No one quite knows why, or where the word came from, but ziff is an old Australian slang word for a beard.
A zigzagging course or route? That’s a zigzaggery.
Also spelled zingiberaceous, the adjective zinziberaceous specifically refers to plants in the Zinziberaceae family—or, in other words, it’s a fancy way of saying “gingery.”
Derived from Italian, zitella is a 17th-century word for a young girl or maiden.
An 18th-century slang word for cold, frosty weather. No one is quite sure where it comes from, but it may have been partly influenced by sneezy.
The name of a kind of insanity in which a person believes that they’re an animal. It’s related to lycanthropy, a formal name for werewolfism.
Early 1900s slang for a fool or a simpleton.
A local English word for soft, boggy land or marshland.
A zoilist is an unnecessarily harsh or carping critic, and a zoilous person is someone who revels in that kind of criticism. Both words derive from Zoilus, an ancient Greek critic and grammarian who was one of the harshest critics of Homer; Zoilus apparently reveled in his reputation. He used the nickname Homeromastix, or “Homer-whipper.”
Slang from the 1970s meaning “odd” or “uncanny.” (Don’t confuse it with zonkey, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey.)
Zoodikers, zonkers, zoonters, zooks, and zookers are all old-fashioned exclamations of surprise or amazement, popular from the mid-17th to late-19th centuries. They’re all descended from the earlier expression Gadzooks, which is itself a euphemistic corruption of “God’s hooks,” the nails used to secure Jesus to the cross.
An artist that excels at or specializes in drawing animals is a zoographer.
Another word for carnivorousness, zoophagous literally means “animal-eating.”
Zoophilous, meanwhile, means “animal-loving.”
An adjective describing anything shaped like a girdle.
Grumpy or ill-natured. An old southwest English dialect word.
A 14th-century word for a tree stump.
In chess, zugzwang—“compulsion to move” in German—refers to a situation in which a player is obliged to move one of their pieces despite it being detrimental or disadvantageous. So, figuratively, it can be used to describe any real-life situation in which a person is compelled to do something unpleasant or injurious.
Also borrowed from the chess world is zwischenzug—literally an “intermediate move”—in which a player makes an unexpected or seemingly unwise move, either to play for time or to force their opponent to change their tactic, thereby taking more control over the game. In general use, zwischenzug can likewise refer to any interim step or tactic that buys time, or changes the course of events.
According to one 19th-century dictionary, a zwodder is “a drowsy and stupid state of mind.” Monday morning, in other words.
Zygal literally means “shaped like a zygon,” the name of a connecting crossbar-shaped fissure in the brain. More generally, it just means “H-shaped.”
Used chiefly in biological contexts, the word zygopleural describes things that are bilaterally symmetrical—or in other words, the left and right sides are reflected, like a butterfly.
A formal name for the process of fermentation, or for the production of beer or wine.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.