Trivia 040: The most common letter

Hello, yes, it’s me again. I know, I know, I missed last week’s newsletter (don’t worry, you’ll get an extra later). Sometimes it’s difficult to pick a topic to write about for one of these, and so I delay a bit. After all, I know that the real reason you read these is for my razor-sharp wit and masterful authorship (that’s called hyperbole). I want this to be an interesting take on some fascinating trivia, not just a “Did you know that dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago?”. So I like to have enough to talk about for a few paragraphs. I don’t want these posts to be novels, but nor do I want them to be as short as a Tweet on Twitter. Speaking of Twitter, though…

When Twitter was first created, way back in distant past of 2006, users were limited to posting messages that were no more than 140 characters in length. To share whatever you wanted to say, you would have to boil it down to a short, sweet statement. In fact, musician and podcaster John Roderick thought that each message had to be exactly 140 characters in length, which really forces you to get creative. His tweets were rather popular, and some of them were even collected in a book, Electric Aphorisms. By the way, John Roderick co-hosts a podcast with Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) called The Omnibus, and I highly recommend it.

The idea of imposing arbitrary rules to create interesting linguistic situations is nothing new. Poetry has been doing this for centuries. For example, limericks are supposed to five lines, with rhyme scheme AABBA, and have a particular syllabic pattern. Perhaps one of the most famously restrictive poem types is the Japanese haiku. Haiku are three lines each, following a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and should have a seasonal reference and specific word structure. But sometimes following pre-established classical poetry rules just isn’t enough for some people.

Gadsby, by Ernest Vincent Wright (not to be confused with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald), is a short novel published in 1939. It features the exploits of one John Gadsby. Gadsby is concerned about the state of affairs in his town, and how the youth (those darn kids) seem to be so full of energy, but with no useful outlet for that enthusiasm. He sets about creating an organization where young men and women can gather to work on projects to help develop their town. All in all, it’s a rather lackluster story about small-town politics and suburban America. Having read it myself, I can say that the story is not very interesting. But that’s not why I chose to read it.

I chose to read this book because it is an incredible example of a lipogram. Lipograms are works which specifically omit a letter (or letters). In the case of Gadsby, this 50,000+ word novel was written entirely without the use of the letter ‘e’. This is a pretty incredible feat, and forced Wright to be very clever in how he wrote things. After all, removing all words with ‘e’ in them from your vocabulary is incredibly restrictive. ‘E’ is the most common letter in the English language (appearing twice in just those two words), and having to do without it means you have to cut out all of those words. In the writing of this post, I used a total of 375 e’s. Just think about all the words that end in ‘ed’ or ‘es’. You can’t even use the word ‘the’.

Perhaps one of my favorite examples from the book is the description of the zoo. You could have lions in it, but not tigers or bears. So Wright had to find a good list of animals which do not have e’s. These include yak, caribou, walrus, bison, alligators, llamas, gorillas, and “a big gang of that amusing, tiny mimic always found accompanying hand-organs” (monkeys). When they go to the horse race, it is “that oval track around which swiftly trotting colts will thrill thousands”. And instead of having turkey for Thanksgiving, they have the “Thanksgiving National Bird”.

Ultimately, I would say that Gadsby is definitely worth reading for the linguistic contortions Wright had to do to avoid using any e’s. He ends up being very circumlocutious, but it’s pretty incredible he was able to accomplish this. Though the first edition of the book did contain three uses of “the” and one use of “officers”. This was fixed in later editions, though.

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