In 1903, author Rupert Hughes published The Musical Guide, an encyclopedia of classical music. Among the many sections of the "Guide" was a "pronouncing and defining dictionary of terms, instruments, etc". The "dictionary," 252 pages in all, explained the meaning and gave the pronunciation of the German, Italian and other non-English words found in the terminology of classical music. At the end of the dictionary, immediately following the entry for "zymbel" (German for cymbal), Hughes added the following definition:
|“||zzxjoanw (shaw). Maori. 1. Drum. 2. Fife. 3. Conclusion.||”|
According to Dmitri Borgmann's 1965 book Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities, printed before it was revealed as a hoax:
- "The Music Lovers' Encyclopedia, compiled by Rupert Hughes, revised by Deems Taylor and Russell Kerr, and published in 1954, presents us with one of the most unbelievable, one of the most intriguing letter combinations ever to claim recognition as a word: ZZXJOANW. This spectacular word is so versatile that it possesses not merely one, but three different meanings: (a) drum; (b) fife; (c) conclusion. The term is of Maori origin"
In 1974 Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, while accepting the word's meaning as a "Maori drum", rejected Hughes' pronunciation of "shaw", proposing a somewhat different realization: "ziks-jo'an".
Ross Eckler describes the hoax in his 1996 book Making the Alphabet Dance:
- "The two-Z barrier was breached many years ago in a specialized dictionary, Rupert Hughes's The Musical Guide (later, Music-Lovers Encyclopedia), published in various editions between 1905 and 1956. Its final entry, ZZXJOANW (shaw) Maori 1.Drum 2.Fife 3.Conclusion, remained unchallenged for more than seventy years until Philip Cohen pointed out various oddities: the strange pronunciation, the odd diversity of meanings (including "conclusion") and the non-Maori appearance of the word. (Maori uses the fourteen letters AEGHIKMNOPRTUW, and all words end in a vowel). A hoax clearly entered somewhere; no doubt Hughes expected it to be obvious, but he did not take into account the credulity of logologists, sensitized by dictionary-sanctioned outlandish words such as mlechchha and qaraqalpaq."
No other Maori word appears in the dictionary, and the suggested pronunciation of "shaw" does not conform to the format of the dictionary's own pronunciation guide (which gives realizations for sixteen languages, including Welsh and Arabic, but not Maori).
The book You Say Tomato: An Amusing and Irreverent Guide to the Most Often Mispronounced Words in the English Language, published in 2005, appears to take the word seriously. Citing "eminent alternative lexicographer Mr. Peter Bowler" it gives the meaning as a Maori drum; however it declines to offer a pronunciation, saying that "We'll leave the pronunciation to the Maoris, although Welshmen and Poles are said to be able to do wonders with it".
In popular culture
Auntie Kapur tapped a steady beat on a miniature ceremonial drum -- which some called a zzxjoanw -- while making fatidic statements about amorous goddesses and other superstitious nonsense
In the 1990 graphic novel Batman 3-D, the story "Ego Trip" by John Byrne uses the word as a plot device, where it appears on a delivery receipt. The police believe it to be a garbled message, but Batman knows it to be an actual order of a Maori drum.
I write cryptic crossword clues on the back of my hands to solve during maths or religious education. If a supply teacher gives us a word search, I try and find words which we are not supposed to be looking for. The word zzxjoanw: a Maori drum.
- Hughes (1903), p. 307.
- Hughes (1912), p. 307
- Hughes (1939)
- Borgmann, Dmitri A. Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities. New York: Scribner. p. 143. OCLC 8478220.
- Heifetz, Josefa (1974). Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words. Secaucus, NJ: University Books. p. 237. ISBN 0-8216-0203-9.
- Eckler, Ross. Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-14032-0.
- Hughes (1903), pp. 395ff.
- Jackson, R.W. (2005). You Say Tomato. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. p. 247. ISBN 1-56025-762-8.
- Brin, David (1994) . Earth. New York, NY: Bantam Books. ISBN 0307573400.
- Byrne, John. Batman 3-D: Ego Trip. DC Comics. ISBN 1852863641.
- Dunthorne, Joe (2008). Submarine: a novel. New York, NY: Random House. p. 56. ISBN 1588366707.
- Hughes, Rupert (1903). The Musical Guide. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. OCLC 861137.
- Hughes, Rupert (1912). Music Lovers' Cyclopedia. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. OCLC 1315690.
- Hughes, Rupert; Deems Taylor; Russell Kerr (1939). Music Lovers' Encyclopedia. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co. OCLC 163469059.