Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Dear Mordechai,

Why does “ZZZ” represent sleeping? What does Z have to do with anything?




Dear Y,

Well, the answer that everyone says is that that’s the sound we make when we snore, and is therefore the funny pages’ way of poking fun at a possibly serious medical condition.

“Ha ha! At least he’s not dead!”

But it isn’t. We snore because our mouths are open, and to make a Z, your teeth need to be together. Who snores with their teeth together?

As far as I can tell, the Z thing started in comic strips, when artists needed a way to represent that the character was sleeping and not dead. Because if the reader thought he was dead, it might ruin the humor of the comic strips. Because for example, in, say, Blondie, where the wife comes up to her husband as he’s lying on the couch, asks him to do chores, and then walks away, the strip would take on a very different tone if it turns out the husband might be deceased. So to avoid people thinking the characters were dead, they had to be making some kind of noise. This is the main reason we snore in real life as well. Especially when we’re majorly tired. Otherwise, if we sleep for long enough, people might start making other arrangements. (“Put me down! I was asleep!”)

But why Z? (Ugh.)

Well, assuming you want a string of letters, what letter would you use?

You can’t go with a vowel (“AAA,” “EEE,” “III,”), as those would just sound like the person is screaming. Night terrors. That’s funny.

Then there are several letters that you can’t possibly say more than one of in a row, such as B, P, K, and X.

And then there are letters that already represent things. “MMM” would mean he’s dreaming about something yummy. “RRR” means he’s a lion, “SSS” would mean he’s losing air, “HHH” would mean he’s frustrated, and “WWW” would mean he’s dreaming about the Internet. And we’re quickly running out of letters here.

So what sound would be more accurate? Probably “CH.” But:


  1. You can’t make a prolonged “CH” sound on paper. Either the C is long (“CCCCCCH”), or the H is long (“CHHHHH”), and if you write, “Chchchchchch,” no one will know how to pronounce it. It looks like repetitive hiccups. And
  1. Many people can’t pronounce the “CH” sound – except in their sleep, apparently. And even when they’re awake and attempting to say Jewish words, they pronounce it as they do when they snore – really deep and with lots of phlegm involved.


Most likely, though, since it was artists who came up with this, it’s more about the shape of the Z. A “Z” looks like a nose and a closed eye. Or a side view of the nose and open mouth of a guy passed out on his back.

It could also have something to do with sawing logs. A lot of people compare sleeping to sawing logs, even though sawing logs is not conducive to sleep, nor is sleep conducive to sawing logs.

Point is, when you use a handsaw, your hand actually makes the “Z” motion.

But that raises the question: Why is sleep represented by sawing wood? Because snoring sounds like sawing wood? It doesn’t. Sawing wood sounds like Z’s.

But maybe sawing wood has nothing to do with snoring. Maybe it comes from the old days, when everyone used firewood, and sometimes, after a wife would wake her husband up from the couch to do his chores, he would say he was going out to saw some wood, and then he’d take a nap in the shed. Of course, nowadays, we say something more like, “Well, I’m going off to learn…” Especially on Shavuos night.


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