In comics and cartoons, it’s common to see a series of “Z’s” indicating an individual is sleeping. But, when and how did the letter Z become linked with sleeping?
Actually, “Zzzz” is an onomatopoeic representation of the act of snoring. It sounds like snoring, or at least since 1918. Snoring and sleep became almost interchangeable in comics’ language, and this brought on a new agreed-upon standard. In 1918, the American Dialect Society formalized it, and soon after, popular idioms followed, like “catching some z’s”, for instance.
Over time, the letter Z became linked permanently to everybody’s favorite biological imperative. (In some cases, they’d use a tiny saw that cuts through a log and both the saw and snore would make the zzzz sound.) As time went on, however, this became linked with sleep in general.
Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word that comes from a sound linked with what is named. It’s a class of words made for imitating all types of sounds.
The reason behind zzz and how it came into being is because comic strip artists had a difficult time representing sleeping. Since there’s no real way of representing sleeping, they came up with a sound-word (onomatopoeia) instead.
Boom, buzz, crash, bang, pow, zip, and clang are all onomatopoeias, but depending on their use, are also very real words. They can be words, such as verbs, or they can represent a certain sound that’s made, such as a bee’s buzzing. In this case, you’d use “buzz” as a noun. So, when you say the bee went “buzz”, it’s an onomatopoeia.
You can trace the letter Z back to Henry David Thoreau’s writings: Journal 1837-1846, whose writings referenced the low buzz of insects, or better yet, “The dry z-ing of locusts.” This buzz merged with snoring over the years, although it could have been the 20th century comics that really make the connection in popular culture.
As it’s hard to represent sounds made while you sleep with letters, the artists went with zzz since it represented the sounds best. Generally, capital ZZZs mean snoring loud, or something to that effect, often with old, large men. And, it’s now turned into its own meaning, no longer requires an explanation, and is basically accepted all over the world as a representation of sleeping.
It’s a convention in comics of America where the snoring sound can be decreased to one letter — z. Thus, this letter standing by itself in a speech bubble means the character is asleep in most funny comics. You may see this, for example, in “Peanuts” comic strips by Charles Schulz.
The Z bubble, being long-established, doesn’t even mean the character is snoring, rather than simply sleeping. The way it came to be is now almost lost, sort of like the saying “the wrong end of the stick.”
There aren’t any solid rules about capitalizing zzz. In some instances, individuals will put it all in caps, others may capitalize only the middle z, and still others will capitalize the first z followed by smaller case z’s. Regardless, you probably won’t find “catching some z’s” in any type of formal writing, but likely more in informal conversations.
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