Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Is A Lipogram?

A lipogram is a text that purposefully excludes a particular letter of the alphabet. A contemporary example is Andy West's novel Lost and Found (2002), which does not contain the letter e.


From the Greek, "missing letter"

Examples and Observations:

* "Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary 'fill-ins' as 'romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.' Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins caroling at twilight, nor any 'warm glow of lamplight' from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that 'a child don't know anything.'

"Now, any author, from history's dawn, always had that most important aid to writing: an ability to call upon any word in his dictionary in building up his story. That is, our strict laws as to word construction did not block his path. But in my story that mighty obstruction will constantly stand in my path; for many an important, common word I cannot adopt, owing to its orthography."

(Ernest Vincent Wright, from Gadsby, 1939--a story of more than 50,000 words that does not use the letter e)

* "Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It's tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . ."

(Daniel J. Webster, "A Lipogram: Writing Without It." Keeping Order on My Shelf: Poems and Translations. iUniverse, 2005)

"The earliest lipograms are thought to have been composed in the sixth century BC, but none has survived; maybe they were never actually written down, only imagined, to circulate among the clerisy as instant legends of verbal skill. . . . [T]he lipogram should be a purposeless ordeal undertaken voluntarily, a gratuitous taxing of the brain, and the severer the better. It should make the business of writing not pleasanter but harder."

(John Sturrock, "Georges Perec." The Word From Paris: Essays on Modern French Thinkers and Writers. Verso, 1998)

Here are some more fascinating works -

* Adam Adams' novel Toxic Panda is an armchair treasure hunt excluding the letter E throughout the book and the embedded puzzles.

* In Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa (1974) the first chapter consists solely of words beginning with "A". Chapter two also permits words beginning with "B" and so on, until at chapter 26, Abish allows himself to use words beginning with any letter at all. For the next 25 chapters, he reverses the process.

* Gyles Brandreth re-wrote some of Shakespeare's works as lipograms: Hamlet without the letter "I" (e.g., "To be or not to be, that's the query"; Macbeth without "A" or "E"; Twelfth Night without "O" or "L"; Othello without "O".[7][citation needed] In 1985 he also wrote the following poem, where each stanza is a lipogrammatic pangram (using every letter of the alphabet except "E").

Bold Nassan quits his caravan,
A hazy mountain grot to scan;
Climbs jaggy rocks to find his way,
Doth tax his sight, but far doth stray.

Not work of man, nor sport of child
Finds Nassan on this mazy wild;
Lax grow his joints, limbs toil in vain—
Poor wight! why didst thou quit that plain?

Vainly for succour Nassan calls;
Know, Zillah, that thy Nassan falls;
But prowling wolf and fox may joy
To quarry on thy Arab boy.

* In Christian Bök's novel Eunoia (2001), each chapter is restricted to a single vowel, missing four of the five vowels. For example the fourth chapter does not contain the letters "A", "E", "I" or "U". A typical sentence from this chapter is "Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth." Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel has been called univocalic.

* Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing), a book by Mike Schertzer (1998), pretends to have been written "by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance... who can find me here in this silence". The poems that follow use only the 4 vowels "A", "E", "I", and "O", and 11 consonants "C", "D", "F", "H", "L", "M", "N", "R", "S", "T", and "W" of this utterance.

* Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001) is described as a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable": the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel. It is not purely lipogrammatic, however, because the outlawed letters do appear in the text proper from time to time (the characters being penalized with banishment for their use) and when the plot requires a search for pangram sentences, all twenty-six letters are obviously in use. Also, late in the text, the author begins using letters serving as homophones for the omitted letters (i.e. "PH" in place of an "F", "G" in place of "C"), which some might argue is cheating.

Some amazing stuff!


  1. Wow. Amazing is right. I had heard a long time ago about a novel without the letter "e". The reference was probably to "Gadsby". I couldn't believe such a thing was possible. I surely couldn't do it. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  2. You are such a digger of deep troughs; my brain scarce can apprehend such stuff!

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