The Secret Lives of Letters
They may be small characters, but there are amazing stories behind all 26 alphabet all-stars
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