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Oct 17, 2005
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Words about words

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with Anu Garg


(LIP-uh-gram) Pronunciation RealAudio

noun: A piece of writing that avoids one or more letters of the alphabet.

From Greek lipo- (lacking) + gram (something written).

NOTES: In spite of what it sounds like, a lipogram is not a message with a kiss. Lipogram is a work written with a constraint.

Imagine you've just started your great epic novel and one of the keys on your keyboard is broken. It would be trivial to manage without a Q, X, or Z, but writing without a single E -- ah, that'd be some challenge. If it sounds undoable, consider that whole books have been written without an E, the most used letter in the English language. Without an E, one has to give up some of the most common pronouns such as he, she, we, me, and so on. What's more, even the article "the" is barred.

Coming back to books written without Es (I'm sure writing them is not something everyone can do with ease), Ernest Vincent Wright's 1939 novel Gadsby is written without the second vowel. One of the best known E-less works is Georges Perec's lipogrammatic French novel, La Disparition (The Disappearance). Its plot is full of wordplay, puzzles, and other word-fun. For example, a character is missing eggs, or is unable to remember his name because it needs E in the spelling.

Though it may be hard to believe considering the restriction under which it is written, the novel is said to be quite engrossing. Apparently, many reviewers were not even aware that a special constraint was used in writing it. After writing the novel, Perec faced a protest from the A, I, O, and U keys on his keyboard that they had to do all the work and E was leading an e'sy life. So Perec had no choice but to write a short work called Les Revenentes, where he put to work all those idle Es: the only vowel used was E.

If that doesn't sound incredible enough, here is more. La Disparition has been translated into English as A Void by Gilbert Adair. Of course, the translation also doesn't have any E in it. In case you have not already noticed, both the phrases "La Disparition" and "A Void" have only vowels A, I, and O in them, same as in the word "lipogram". And A Void's protagonist is named Anton Vowl.

One can write numbers from zero, one, two,... onwards, and not use the A key on the keyboard until reaching thousand. As for the literary merit of that composition, I'm not very certain.

(also see univocalic)

"Go on, r*ad my lipogram!"
Rod*rick Nord*ll; What's Missing From This Story?; The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Massachusetts); Oct 31, 2002.

See more usage examples of lipogram in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.


Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once. -Cyril Connolly, critic and editor (1903-1974)

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