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Today's Word



Feb 8, 2023
This week’s theme
Misleading words

This week’s words

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with Anu Garg


(li-POG-ruh-fee, ly-)

noun: The omission of a letter or syllable in writing.

From Greek lipo- (lacking) + -graphy (writing). Earliest documented use: 1888.

In spite of what it sounds like, lipography is not writing with lips. Instead, it’s the omission, inadvertent or on purpose, of a letter or syllable in writing.

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 -- 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 (not something one 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. 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. And A Void’s protagonist is named Anton Vowl.

Here’s a way to try lipography: write numbers from zero, one, two,... onwards. You wouldn’t need the letter A until reaching thousand. As for the literary merit of that composition, I’m not very certain.

“It fell upon these saints of adultery, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, to accomplish by art, or by the error that is art, a masterpiece of lipography. For the omission of the word ‘not’ from Exodus XX:14 -- ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’ -- they received a fine of £300 and then, it seems, they were lost in history.”
Cliff Fell; The Adulterer’s Bible: Poems; Victoria University Press; 2003.

I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own powers. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful. -John Ruskin, author, art critic, and social reformer (8 Feb 1819-1900)

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