It might be one of the least-frequently used letters in the English language (you can expect it to start less than 0.5% 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) to zardozi (a type of embroidery using metallic thread), and from zambomba (a Spanish percussion instrument) to 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?
A German-origin word for the overuse or unnecessarily aggressive use of military power; to zabernize likewise 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.
An old southern English dialect word meaning “to walk hesitantly.”
Borrowed into English from Yiddish (and descended from a German word meaning “juicy”), if a woman is zaftig then she’s 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.
Popular in the early 1900s, a zarnder was a woman’s loose ringlet of hair worn over one shoulder. It derives from a slang corruption of the name of Queen Alexandra, the wife and consort of King Edward VII, who popularized the style.
An isolated sandy inlet or cave in a coastal cliff is a zawn.
An old 18th century word for a seamstress or dressmaker.
1960s slang for something showy or colourful. The OED 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, 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 of the genus Zingiber—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.
As a noun, zizz is sparkle or vivacity, whereas as a verb, it can be used to mean “to enliven.”
An 18th century slang word for cold, frosty weather. No one is quite sure where it comes from, but it’s likely partly influenced by sneezy.
The name of a kind of insanity in which a sufferer 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 revelled in his reputation, as he used the nickname Homeromastix, or “Homer-whipper.”
1970s slang meaning “odd” or “uncanny.” (Spelled with an E, a zonkey is 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.”
…while zoophilous 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. And 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, anything described as zygopleural is 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.