• zyzzyva •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A genus of tropical South American weevils particularly fond of palm trees.
Notes: Who has the last word? The sole interest in this word is the fact that it is the last word in the American Heritage Collegiate dictionary. The last word in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged is a related word, zyzzogeton "a genus of large South American leafhoppers of the family Cicadellidae". The Oxford English Dictionary ends on a nonword, zyxt, a long-obsolete Kentish spelling of second person singular present tense of see! Clearly, American Heritage has a word more befitting last position in a dictionary than the competition.
In Play: The next time you see a raggedy palm tree, you may wish to speculate, "I wonder if that tree is under attack by zyzzyvas?" It will be worth it just to see the expressions on the faces of those with you. Let's say someone calls you an insignificant bug; you now have a retort that trumps their term hand over fist: "I consider that a compliment coming from a zyzzyva like you." When they look it up they will find that it is the least known bug on earth with a name at the bottom of the dictionary. Top that!
Word History: Suffrage goes back to Latin suffragari "to vote". The root of this word comes from the same source as English break. The English word break (= German brechen) comes from the Proto-Indo-European root, bhreg-. The initial [bh] became [b] in English and the [g] became [k], both by regular historical change. The [bh] in Latin, however, standing at the beginning of a word as it does here, became [f], so the Latin word for "break" is frangere, past participle fractus, the origin of our word fracture. With the prefix sub- "under" (the final [b] assimilating to the following [f]), this stem gave Latin suffragari "to vote." Why the connection between "break" and "vote"? The guess is that the early Romans used broken shards of pottery for casting votes. (We all owe a unanimous vote of gratitude to Ruth Baldwin for suggesting we look into the odd connotations of today's word.)
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