One of the comic strips I liked in my childhood was a quirky one set in the “old west” and starring an eponymous cowpoke, viz., Tumbleweeds. You would not think that a comic set in a frontier town called Grimy Gulch would be the sort of strip from which one might learn recondite vocabulary (unlike Calvin and Hobbes), but Tom K. Ryan, who drew it, clearly had a literary sensibility. For example, the lawyer in town was named Larsen E. Pettifogger, from which I learned the word pettifogger. But that is not today’s word. Today’s word is not in fact a word but a condensation thereof, viz., an abbreviation.

Abbreviations are not often encountered in comic strips, except on signs – certainly not in dialogue, for who speaks abbreviations? But one character in Tumbleweeds, named Lotsa Luck, did not speak but rather wrote small notes on a small notepad and peeled them off and handed them to his addressees. The notes were in a pointedly erudite style, and one of them – at least one; I don’t have the source material to hand anymore – used an abbreviation that has stuck with me, namely viz.

I didn’t know at the time that it was an abbreviation. I figured out from context that it meant something like ‘to wit’ or ‘namely’ (as indeed it does), and, not knowing any better, went with what my eyes told me and assumed that it was to be pronounced “viz,” rhymes with “wiz.” I also reckoned from context that it was about as stilted as, say, ye olde. I believe the first time I was confronted with its being an abbreviation was when I tried to play it in Scrabble. It would be a very useful word to play in Scrabble, but you may not play it in Scrabble any more than you may play etc.  At length I learned that it stood for videlicet. Which left me with three questions: first, what exactly does that mean; second, how do you say videlicet; and third, how do you say viz.? Oh, and a fourth question: where the heck does that z come from?

Let’s answer the fourth question first, because it relates to ye olde as well. You may know (as I have mentioned it occasionally in the past) that the y in ye olde is not actually a y but a rendering – within the limitations of type bought from the Netherlands – of the character þ, which stood for what we now write as th. It’s similar to how the z in names like Kenzie and Menzies is a representation of an old character ȝ, which stood for what we might now write as gh – except we don’t use that sound anymore. The names Menzies and Mingus were originally the same. So does that mean that viz was originally viȝ? No – it’s a different abbreviation, something more abstruse and wicked.

OK, you may not agree that medieval scribal abbreviations for Latin are wicked. After all, these scribes had to copy out countless pages of text and had good reason to make their work a bit lighter, even if it made life troublesome for scholars of later centuries. So, just as we might use Ltd. in place of Limited and Dr. in place of Doctor, they would regularly reduce common Latin suffixes to standard abbreviations – -um (or often any other thing involving m or n) might be converted to a simple ~ or just ¯ above the letter before, for example, and -et was sometimes represented by . And occasionally the abbreviation might grab a few more letters under its umbrella. So videlicet could be viꝛ. Which, if you’re trying to set it in type and you have only the letters produced in Dutch foundries, or you’re just going with what your eyes tell you, might – in fact, would – come out as viz

What does videlicet mean? Well, first off, the et is not the et that means ‘and’ (though  was also used to stand for that et). Videlicet is itself a contraction, of videre licet, which is videre ‘to see’ and licet ‘it is permitted’. But in Latin it would be said as videlicet, not as videre licet, and that would be with the stress on the first e – which is the only long vowel – and if you’re going with classical pronunciation, the v is like “w” and the c is “k,” but if you’re going with ecclesiastical pronunciation the v is “v” and the c is like “ch.” But in English pronunciation, the word is said “videliset.”

So is that how you also say viz., just as you say etc. as “et cetera”? You could… but that’s not the usual way, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So does one say it as “viz”? One does not. No, apparently, “in reading aloud [it is] usually rendered by ‘namely’.” So, for instance, Please send $3K of Au to my residence, viz. 27 St. James St. would be read “Please send three thousand dollars of gold to my residence, namely twenty-seven Saint James Street.”

I’ll have to take their word for it. I am not aware of ever having heard it read aloud. In fact, I have rarely seen it even in print – though I did just encounter it this week in an academic book I’m editing. I seldom see it even in academic books, but the author of this one is not American; he’s from the same country that supplied early English printers with their type sets, viz., the Netherlands.

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