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Inspired by this answer and it's comments.

Early on, it was standard to refer to great Rabbis who had passed away with the appellation "Zal" - "zichrono/ah livracha "May his/her/their memory be a blessing" (see here). Over time, people started using the appellation "Zatzal" - zecher tzadik livracha "May the memory of this tzaddik be a blessing" - when talking about great rabbis who have passed away.

When did this trend start? When was the shift made from "Zal" to "Zatzal"?

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in a similar vein: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/5720/meforshim-nicknames –  Menachem Jul 16 '12 at 1:12
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And when was it made to ZTZVLLZZLLKVKLZLZKLKKLK"L? –  Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 1:46
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I would claim the opposite. After all it was Shlomo HaMelech who already coined the phrase zt"l in זֵכֶר צַדִּיק לִבְרָכָה in משלי Ch 10:7. mechon-mamre.org/i/t/t2810.htm - where does z"l come from? –  Danny Schoemann Jul 24 '12 at 6:21
    
@DannySchoemann: Shlomo HaMelech wasn't saying it on anyone though. Although that may an answer. Z"l is "Zecher L'Bracha". Maybe originally it was only used for Tzadikim, in reference to the Passuk. Once people started using it for anyone who wasn't a Rasha (not just a Tzaddik), people started using Zatzal to show they were speaking about a Tzaddik, and not just a Rasha. –  Menachem Jul 24 '12 at 6:55
    
(Actually, I was taught that Z"l is "Zichrono/Zichrona Livracha") –  Danny Schoemann Jul 24 '12 at 13:42

1 Answer 1

Some speculation inspired by the comments to this question.

The verse in Mishlei (10:7) says:

זֵכֶר צַדִּיק, לִבְרָכָה; וְשֵׁם רְשָׁעִים יִרְקָב.‏

The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing; but the name of the wicked shall rot.

Rashi explains:

The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing: Whoever mentions a righteous man blesses him. but the name of the wicked shall rot: Decay develops in their name, for no one wishes to mention his [the wicked man’s] name, and it is automatically forgotten.

Initially, people would use Zichrono LeBracha, "May his memory be for a blessing", when referencing a Tzaddik who had passed away. Over time (perhaps because nobody wanted to imply that the deceased was wicked), this evolved into saying it for any person who was not a Rasha.

Once this became prevalent, the need was felt to distinguish the Righteous from the Ordinary, and Zecher Tzadik LeBracha was born.

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