The Se­cret Lives of Let­ters

They may be small char­ac­ters, but there are amaz­ing sto­ries be­hind all 26 al­pha­bet all-stars

Reader's Digest - - Contents - By Brooke nel­son

They may be small char­ac­ters, but there are amaz­ing sto­ries be­hind these 26 al­pha­bet all-stars.

Athe cap­i­tal A hasn’t al­ways looked the way it does now. In an­cient Semitic lan­guages, the let­ter was up­side down, which cre­ated a sym­bol that re­sem­bled a steer with horns.

BGrab pa­per and pen and start writ­ing down ev­ery num­ber as a word. Do you no­tice one miss­ing let­ter? If you kept go­ing, you wouldn’t use a sin­gle let­ter b un­til you reached one bil­lion.

CBen­jamin Franklin wanted to banish c from the al­pha­bet—along with j, q, w, x, and y—and re­place them with six let­ters he’d in­vented him­self. He claimed that he could sim­plify the English lan­guage.

DCon­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, the D in D-day does not stand for “doom” or “death”—it stands for “day.” The mil­i­tary marks im­por­tant oper­a­tions and in­va­sions with a D as a place­holder. (So June 5, 1944, was D-1.)

Emeet the “Smith” of the English al­pha­bet—e is used more of­ten than any other let­ter. It ap­pears in 11 per­cent of all words, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of more than 240,000 en­tries in the Con­cise Ox­ford English Dic­tionary.

FAny­one ed­u­cated in to­day’s school sys­tem knows that the low­est grade you can get is an F. The low-wa­ter mark, how­ever, used to be rep­re­sented by the let­ter E. When Mount Holyoke Col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors re­designed the grad­ing sys­tem in 1898, pro­fes­sors wor­ried that stu­dents would think the grade meant “ex­cel­lent.” F more ob­vi­ously stands for “fail.”

GBoth G and C were orig­i­nally rep­re­sented by the Phoeni­cian sym­bol gimel, which meant “camel.” It was the Ro­mans who fi­nally sep­a­rated the two let­ters, let­ting C keep its shape and adding a bar for the let­ter G.

HThe Brits have long had an h hang-up, ac­cord­ing to Michael Rosen, au­thor of Al­pha­bet­i­cal: How Ev­ery Let­ter Tells a Story. They pro­nounce h two ways: “aitch” and “haitch.” Ac­cents that dropped the h from words were once con­sid­ered lower class, Rosen writes.

And in North­ern Ire­land, pro­nun­ci­a­tion dis­tin­guished Catholics (“haitch”) from Protes­tants (“aitch”).

IFun­nily enough, the dot over the let­ters i and j has a funny-sound­ing name: It’s called a tit­tle.

Jthis is one of the two let­ters that do not ap­pear on the pe­ri­odic ta­ble. (Q is the other.) In­vented in the 1500s by an Ital­ian, j was also one of the last let­ters to be added to the al­pha­bet.

KWith the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of L (see be­low), K is the most no­to­ri­ous let­ter in sports. It’s how base­ball fans record a strike­out. (When the first box score was writ­ten back in 1859,

S was used to in­di­cate a sac­ri­fice; K was plucked from the end of struck.)

LThe Na­tional Foot­ball League has tra­di­tion­ally used Ro­man nu­mer­als to de­note the num­ber of the Big Game, but for the 50th Su­per Bowl, they de­cided to go with just the num­ber 50. Why? Sports fans use the let­ters W and L as short­hand for “win” and “loss.” Be­cause the Ro­man numeral for

50 is L, the NFL wor­ried that Su­per Bowl L would be, in PR terms, a big loser.

MYou can’t say the let­ter m with­out your lips touch­ing. Go ahead and try it!

NThe let­ter n was orig­i­nally as­so­ci­ated with wa­ter—the Phoeni­cian word for n was nun, which later be­came the Ara­maic word for “fish.” In fact, the cap­i­tal N got its shape be­cause it was a pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a crash­ing wave.

OOnly four let­ters (a, e, l, o) are dou­bled at the be­gin­ning of a word (aard­vark, eel, llama, ooze, etc.), and more words start with dou­ble o in English than with any other pair.

Pthis may be the most ver­sa­tile let­ter in English. It’s the only con­so­nant that needs no help in form­ing a word sand­wich with any vowel: pap, pep, pip, pop, pup.

QOne out of ev­ery 510 let­ters in English words is a q, mak­ing it the least com­mon let­ter in the English al­pha­bet, ac­cord­ing to a Con­cise Ox­ford English Dic­tionary anal­y­sis.

Rsome­times re­ferred to as the lit­tera can­ina, or the ca­nine let­ter, be­cause Latin speak­ers trilling it sound like a growl­ing dog, r gets a shout-out from William Shake­speare in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet’s nurse calls the let­ter “the dog’s name” in act 2, scene 4.

SThe English al­pha­bet briefly in­cluded a let­ter called a “long s.” Used from the late Re­nais­sance to the early

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