Imagine the scene in a black-and-white B movie: James Cagney is playing a gangster, again. He’s hiding out in a step pyramid. He thinks he’ll never be found. But his trusted lieutenant Ziggy, a round little bulb-nosed schlimazel, has led his arch-nemesis right to him. Cagney looks up at the door of his secret chamber deep inside the Babylonian building and sees Ziggy leading in a group of men with Tommy guns and a mysterious trench-coated feminine figure, and he exclaims, “Oh, Zig, you rat!” But how was Ziggy seduced to betrayal?
Well, OK, no. Ziggurat doesn’t really have anything to do with gangster movies. Nor, for that matter, with Ziggy, whether we be talking about Ziggy the cartoon character created by Tom Wilson, or Ziggy Stardust as played by David Bowie, or some other person whose birth certificate probably reads something like Sigmund. (There was a recent contretemps involving Ziggy and a rat, however; the rat was from Pearls Before Swine and it was protesting Ziggy’s lack of pants. See comics.com/pearls_before_swine/2009-12-13/. See also www.gocomics.com/ziggy/2009/12/17/.)
It also doesn’t have anything etymologically to do with zig-zag, at least as far as anyone knows – zig-zag may have referred early on to battlements, but it comes from a Germanic word, whereas ziggurat comes from Mesopotamian ziqquratu, from the verb zaqaru, “be high” (and we don’t mean be high on the stuff you roll with Zig-Zag papers).
But the shape of z plays nicely into the zigs and zags of the stepped sides of ziggurats as well as of any crooked jaggers one might call zig-zaggers. The gg, on the other hand, can give a more earthy feeling, as from digger, or a bluntness, as with mugger, or even silliness, as with giggle. The gur could be from figure but just might also call in gurgle or gurn – or augury, perhaps as performed at the peak of a ziggurat. At the end, though, it smacks sharply with rat, like the zap of a lightning bolt, or like the hapless rodent the bolt has just frazzled.
And just think how much more wicked – and foreign-looking – it would be if we spelled it ziqqurat. It would also sound like a crack of lightning, or a lock breaking… or like Marlene Dietrich requesting a cigarette as she holds her gun steadily pointed at Cagney… and the little bulbous guy, hand shaking, flicks his Zippo and lights her one.