Q Is there any connection between the “zest” of a citrus fruit and a person’s “zest” for life? – S.G., Athens, Ga.

A: Yes, there is. “Zest” was borrowed into English in the 17th century from French “zest” (now spelled “zeste”), meaning “orange or lemon peel.” The French word appears to be related to the onomatopoeic interjection “zeste,” which expressed suddenness of occurrence or contemptuous dismissal (somewhat like the English “poof”). As a noun, “zeste” could refer to something of no importance or value. Apparently, because a rind, shell or the like is usually worthless, “zeste” was applied more specifically to the membrane enclosing the sections of a nut and then to the peel of a citrus fruit.

Belying the logic of its name, however, citrus peel turned out to be quite useful as a flavoring in drinks or food. Upon borrowing the word, English extended the “flavoring” meaning of “zest” beyond the culinary domain, and in the 18th century the word began to denote any quality that adds enjoyment or piquancy to something. By the end of that century it could simply mean “keen enjoyment,” as in “a zest for life” or doing something “with zest.”

Q I recently received a letter addressed to “Dear Consumer,” which strikes me as a very distant and impersonal word. I think “Dear Customer” would have been a better salutation. – R.L., Tempe, Ariz.

A: There’s merit in the distinction you make between “consumer” and “customer,” but we would make another distinction as well. A company addressing you as “Dear Customer” implies that you and the company have some sort of established business relationship – in other words, that you have bought something from them in the past.

“Dear Consumer” implies only that they are approaching you as a potential customer – someone who buys things and who, they hope, will want to spend money on their product. “Consumer” is perhaps a more “distant” word than “customer,” but we think the added distance may be appropriate in a letter of the kind you describe.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.


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