Zulu, shmulu

Where did ‘Zulu’ time come from, anyway? What sense does it make to call Coordinated Universal Time (formerly, Greenwich Mean Time) ‘Zulu’ time?

  1. Because back in the days of British colonial hegemony, Bantu slaves from South Africa were used as timekeepers on the estates of landholders, and the slang became entrenched in the common language as meaning ‘British time’. When the standard time zones were adopted late in the 19th century, the term ‘Zulu’ stuck.
  2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology divided the world (from the US perspective) into 24 time zones, each with its central meridian corresponding to Mean Solar Time. Each time zone was assigned a letter (excluding the letters J and K). The Greenwich Observatory just happened to be in the last one.
  3. Choice (1) is ridiculous fiction; choice (2) is actually partially correct. But in 1883, when Krakatoa erupted (OK blew up), the International Meridian Conference was forced into a hurried meeting (one year later –hah!) and decided that another major global conflagration might throw timekeeping and trade routes out of whack, so they had better establish internationally agreed upon time zones, just in case the skies went black all over again.
  4. Choices (2) and (3) actually both have some truth to them, however preposterous that may sound. With the coming of faster and faster transport systems, and more advanced astronomical techniques, the International Meridian Conference (there really was one) in Washington DC in November of 1884 allocated 24 equatorially perpendicular wedges, each of one hour angle (15 degrees of longitude) in width. Letters were assigned to each (leaving out J and K — don’t ask), the Greenwich observatory in England was taken as the reference time zone, and given the last letter, Z. The ‘Zulu’ comes simply from the commonly accepted phonetic alphabet.

The answer is (4). Time zones are often altered markedly to conform somewhat to state borders. In fact there are now 25 occasionally jagged wedges encircling the globe, and every letter except ‘I’ has been gainfully employed. The East coast of the US is actually on ‘Romeo’ time, Central time is ‘Sierra’, and the mountain states & the West coast are Tango and Uniform (a bit awkward if you recall the expression ‘Tango Uniform’!) Not many of us use them though. There’s a good web site with a table of military and civilian time zones at http://gmt2000.com/info/timezone.htm’ .