I’d like to highlight a John Emerson contribution to this thread; another commenter had complained that Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary included the “word” zzxjoanw, allegedly a Maori word for ‘drum,’ and John linked to the Wikipedia entry:

Zzxjoanw is a famous fictitious entry which fooled logologists for many years….
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 off 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.”

I have to admit, I feel the way Hughes no doubt did: who could take such a collection of letters seriously? And as John adds, “The pronunciation given, “shaw” makes it virtually certain that the hoax was a dig at the spelling-reformer and music critic GBS.”


  1. It’s worth pointing out another clue: Maori are notable for being the only Polynesian people who have no drums at all in their traditional music. None.

  2. Having just learned to my considerable astonishment that I “complained” about the presewnce of this string in Mrs Byrne’s, I am a little scared of how this attempt at commenting will be labelled, but here goes anyway.
    Re: “I feel the way Hughes no doubt did: who could take such a collection of letters seriously?”
    If Hughes’ book was published in 1905, at a time when Maaori as a people were almost extinct and their language with them, I’d say, “probably quite a few people.”
    The number of people who would have known anything at all about the Maaori language when he wrote the book would have been very small, and the subset of those who would also have been readers of his work would have been minute. For many of his readers, he might just as well have said that the word was Nostratic, or even Norstrilian. The 1905 date makes the idea that it was a dig at Shaw seem even more likely, and I’m grateful to Mr Emerson for pointing that out.
    In a world that swallowed The Protocols without a whimper, a joke on a tiny language spoken by a few thousand people on the other side of the world from anywhere would almost certainly have been believed by a lot of people.
    The other related point is whether Mrs Byrne was in on the joke from the get go. It seems that the entry for zzxjoanw in Mrs Byrne now says “non-word”, but if that wasn’t there in the first edition maybe she fell for it too. That’s my take on it, anyway, and since it was my “complaint” that triggered this I’ll close by simply saying, “SHARE AND ENJOY”.

  3. Another interesting thing about Maori drum words is that pahuu, the slit-gong used for signaling (and not music, as Stephen Judd points out) is cognate with pahu, a shark-skin drum from Tahiti and Hawaii (e.g., here).

  4. Touched on zzxjoanw in my last OUPblog column, “The Last Word” (citing Philip M. Cohen’s debunkage in Word Ways as well as Jack Lynch’s article on “lexicographical belligerence,” which I learned about here).

  5. Krown, A.J.P. says

    John Emerson, what is the photograph on the Idiocentrism page, above the Wittgenstein quotation?

  6. The presence of “JOAN” in the middle might also be part of a GBS joke; Saint Joan and all that.

  7. I completely forgot this on the last thread, but is there any chance it might also be a “trap word”?
    Not the best place to put it in the dictionary, but still.

  8. Stuart: I’m sorry you find the term “complained” inappropriate, but I was simply trying to sum up your “My first contact with Mrs Byrne’s was when someone quite learned insisted in a web forum that zzxjoanw was a Maaori drum because it was in Mrs Byrne’s. The bizarre experience of actually knowing for a fact that someone much better educated than I was talking out of their hat … put me off Mrs Byrne,” which certainly sounded like you weren’t happy about it. But I’ll be happy to substitute a word of your choice; I did not mean to offend.
    Ben: Thanks for the links!

  9. John Emerson says
  10. Krown, A.J.P. says

    Thanks for that; I didn’t know about it, neither did my wife. Very interesting.

  11. @ “But I’ll be happy to substitute a word of your choice; I did not mean to offend.”
    No need for editing, I was not offended, just bemused. Had Mrs Byrnes not included the word, I would not have found myself in the unusual situation of knowing something someone else didn’t, so that was definitely no cause for complaint. Cause for thinking less of the book, perhaps, but not cause for complaint.
    Actually, it’s just occurred to me that story I initally told is relevant to the question you asked: “who could take such a collection of letters seriously?” I encountered the word when it was cited by someone on AWADtalk, a board devoted to the discussion of words. The fact that a well-educated logophile in the 21st-century could swallow “zzxjoanw” largely because it was in print makes it easier for me to see how the hoax went unchallenged for so long.

  12. I’m as sure as a non-speaker can be that there is no “sh” sound in the Maori language, which tends to support the hoax theory (supposing the Shavian gags wsere not enough).

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