Daily Archives: August 15, 2011

zein

Have you seen this word before? You might think you’d remember if you had, but I think you more likely haven’t. Yet it’s a short word (unlike, say, zeaxanthin), and at the same time eye-catching, thanks to the z at the front – and it’s very angular indeed if you write it in all caps: ZEIN. If the EI were, as they almost appear to be, a single character looking like an 8 from an LED readout, ZEIN would read the same vertically when rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.

Ah, the plasticity of the written word. It’s a nifty little thing, too, this word, and the odds are very high that you’ve actually encountered what it names. And yet the odds are also quite good you won’t even get the pronunciation right at first try.

Also, was kann es sein? Well, if you think it’s pronounced like German, try again. It’s two syllables: like “zee in” – as an American might say, “There’s a zee in this word.” But what else is in it? Hmm. There’s a bit of maize in it… you know, zea maize, a.k.a. Zea mays, a.k.a. corn? More exactly, zein is in maize. It is to corn what gluten is to wheat.

Well, whoop-de-doo. Isn’t that amaizeing. Actually, though, it’s more interesting than you might think, because it is a very useful protein. Pure zein is (to quote Wikipedia, which is borrowing from who knows what) “clear, odorless, tasteless, hard, water-insoluble, and edible.” That gives it quite a lot of uses in a variety of areas of manufacturing. All those bio-plastic cups, for instance. But also coatings on pills, candies, paper cups, bottle caps, buttons, fabrics, and more. You’ve almost certainly handled it, and you’ve almost certainly swallowed it, too (in the many corn products out there, of course, but also on candies and pills, where it may be referred to as “confectioner’s glaze” or “vegetable protein”).

And yet zein remains an exotic, little-known word. Well, unless you’re a reader of AK Comics, an Egyptian-based superhero comic, in which Zein is the name of a superhero philosophy professor who is the last of the ancient line of pharaohs. Wot, they named him after corn protein? Naw, not really, though zein is something of a superhero shape-changer product. Zein just happens also to be an Arabic name (pronounced differently). The corn protein, for its part, gets its name from Latin zea (from Greek ζειά zeia), meaning “spelt” (the grain) originally but more recently applied to corn (i.e., maize), and the same derivative suffix in that’s in protein and a variety of other biochemical names.

And so we have maize, originally from Taino (a New World language), and zein, originally from Greek, and they both utilize e, i, and z. Man! Whaddya think of that! Such plasticity written language has… These bits that get used all over. It’s a maize zein!