Letter rip! It’s lipogram time!

[Building words and phrases, one letter at a time.]

This week I did something a little different in the preview for today’s blog. Usually on Mondays, I post a brief preview of the week’s blog posts, Facebook and Twitter content, et cetera.

But instead of a short teaser about the entry, I posted the following clue:

How quickly can you find out what is unusual about this paragraph? It looks so ordinary that you would think that nothing was wrong with it at all and, in fact, nothing is. But it is unusual. Why? If you study it and think about it you may find out, but I am not going to assist you in any way. You must do it without coaching. No doubt, if you work at it for long, it will dawn on you. Who knows? Go to work and try your skill. Par is about half an hour.

Did you figure out what’s curious about it? It’s missing the letter E!

[A keyboard displaying the most commonly used letters in the language in delightful bar-graph form. It should come as no surprise which letter appears most frequently.]

That paragraph is a terrific example of a lipogram, a written work that purposely avoids or leaves out a given letter. Lipograms are part writing challenge and part puzzle, taxing your vocabulary and your creativity.

(Removing any letter can make things tougher. I remember when my friend’s L key on his keyboard stopped working. “I think it will do well” became “I think it wi do we” until he started using the 1 key as a substitute L.)

And if you think writing a paragraph without the letter E is tough, imagine writing an entire novel without it. Ernest Vincent Wright did just that in 1939 with his 50,000 word novel Gadsby. He even went so far as to rephrase famous lines by William Congreve and John Keats in order to keep the letter E away.

Gadsby partially inspired a French author named Georges Perec to do the same, and his novel La Disparition (also known as A Void) doesn’t feature a single E over the course of three hundred pages.

There are numerous other lipogrammatic works and puzzles, but I think my favorite is the novel Ella Minnow Pea by author Mark Dunn.

Not only is the novel told through letters or notes shared by several characters, but the narrative grows increasingly lipogrammatic as the story progresses.

Check out this summary from Wikipedia:

The novel is set on the fictitious island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina, which is home to Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the well-known pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This sentence is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator on the island and is taken very seriously by the government of the island.

Throughout the book, tiles containing the letters fall from the inscription beneath the statue, and as each one does, the island’s government bans the contained letter’s use from written or spoken communication. A penalty system is enforced for using the forbidden characters, with public censure for a first offense, lashing or stocks (violator’s choice) upon a second offense and banishment from the island nation upon the third.

So as the book progresses, fewer and fewer letters are used! It’s both an impressive linguistic feat and a wonderful work of totalitarian satire. (And how can you not love a character’s name sounding like LMNOP?)

[In a Christmas episode of the ’90s cartoon Animaniacs, Wakko keeps spelling Santa “Santla,” inspiring a rousing, punny version of “Noel” to correct Wakko’s spelling.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a lipogram puzzle: Dittos. In Dittos, you’re given a series of letters, and then told to spell five common words using those letters AND a given letter. You can repeat the given letter as many times as necessary.

For example, if you were given the letters AAENRY and then told to make 2 five-letter words, using D as many times as necessary, you might come up with DREAD and DANDY.

But what about the flip side? What if you decided you were only going to use one vowel? Well then, my ambitious friend, you’ve accepted the challenge of creating a univocalic.

I’m not familiar with any longer works that are univocalic. You usually see them in paragraph form or, occasionally, palindrome form. “A man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” is probably the most famous univocalic in history.

(Univocalics are not to be confused with supervocalics, which are words that include all five vowels, like sequoia or abstemious.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a curious subset of puzzles and wordplay. One of my fellow puzzlers suggested I pursue lipograms as a follow-up to my post a little while back about single-letter puzzles, and I couldn’t resist.

Have you ever tried to write a lipogram or univocalic, PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to see them!

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