She is the alpha in alphabet. She is the primordial first sound “ah” uttered by a new born child. She is the symbol of all things first rate and exceptional — ship-shape’s A-1, stocks and bonds’ AAA rating, schooling’s A grades, Hollywood’s A-List, and the better than good A-Okay.
Except for one downgrading in medieval England, when she was sewn onto the red tunic breast of convicted adulterers, A has traveled first class westward from the Near East 2000 BC to be with us today to fulfill our own aspirations of being a first-rate writer.
From B Grade movies to Plan B, this is a centuries old story of a life led in the shadows of its golden sibling, A. Today, B’s secondary-ness lives on through its original name, beta, which goes back to Bronze Age Near East as “bayt”.
Its reputation as second best was permanently put to pen in ancient Greek literature, where beta signified second in sequence or value. Even astronomers wrote it in the stars by naming the second brightest star as the beta in a constellation. Today, the pre-release stage of a software app goes to market as the beta version, during which time the worst of the bugs are found out.
It’s thanks to the medieval Parisians for having B’s sound refined down to the single beat of ‘bay’. Then during the 1500s, the English pronunciation inflected it into “bee”.
B has a twin called P, who is very attached to his big brother, but that’s another story. For now, if you can’t be number one, just be your very best with a capital B when writing.
Sometimes pronounced ‘k’ (conflict). Other times pronounced ‘s’ (census). Occasionally it’s both in one word (concensus). When H hooks up, C becomes ‘ch’ (as in charming) ‘k’ (as in charismatic) or “sh’ (as in champagne). Then there’s the turf war with K (disc or disk?) and Q (cue or queue?).
C’s struggle with identity goes back to an unstable childhood. You see, back in 1000 BC, the third letter of the Phoenician alphabet was G. When, in 700 BC, it got into the hands of the Etruscan scribes, who had no sound for ‘g’, the letter G was reshaped into C. Since then, C has been a bit of a phonetic conundrum for many writers, especially those amongst us new to the English language.
As far back as Roman times BC, F has been a loaded symbol, ready to fire an obscenity or fulminate into vulgarity. Its sheer friction was described by Cicero (55 BC) as the unsweetest sound ever heard (insuavissimo). Grammarian, Quintilian (AD 90) also gave it the thumbs-down as harsh, unpleasant, inhuman and unvocal.
Little wonder F gets plenty of work as a menacing act, from F.U to F.C.U.K. to just plain The F Word. But it does earn a modicum of decorum in science, technology and photography where F is for fahrenheit, fluoride, frequency and Nikon’s famous F series. For online writing, F forks out our greatest challenge yet — over-riding the F-Shape pattern of web content reading.
N is a top 5 in the league ladder of most typed letters in the alphabet, after e, a, o and i. When it’s not busy working with verb forms (seeing, seen, knowing, known, being, been) and buffering euphonics alongside the a — as in “an actor” and “anaerobic”, it’s doing bread ‘n’ butter gigs for “and”, “not” and various contractions of “–n’t”. It also does some number crunching with mathematicians as n for “number” as in 0 x n = 0. And when that’s not enough, N occasionally makes a guest appearance as an idiom for “to the nth degree”. This expression of without limit well describes a writer who thinks outside the box.
For centuries, P has played the role of B’s junior partner, living in the shadow of its Big Boss’ long established reputation. Sometimes P attempts imitation when it blurs into B, as in spill, spin and speak (more bill, bin and beak than pill, pin and peak).
P mimics B in shape too. But P’s Big Boss Blues was not always so >>>
>>>  >>> Around 1800 BC, in the town of Wadi el-Hol (Central Egypt), the 16th letter of the alphabet began happily enough as “pe” (pronounced “pay”, meaning mouth), and written as V to signify the smile of the mouth >>>  >>> That smile was wiped off by the Phoenicians around 1000 BC but they kept the pronunciation and meaning >>>  >>> Around 750BC, the Greeks pi followed suit in shape, pronunciation and meaning >>>  >>> The early Romans went all geometric for awhile until >>>  >>> about 200 BC, when the latter Romans allegedly morphed the letter into its modern shape so that P looked and sounded like B because both letters were easier to learn and memorise.
And memorability is something properly practiced copywriting makes sure of all the time 🙂
Forbidden and extreme (X rated). Dangerous (X for poison). Mysterious (X Files). X has played the unknown outsider as far back as 1637 when legend has it that Descarte’s printer, having an excess of Xs due to its low usage, suggested his client use the letter as the unknown quantity in mathematical equations — thus if 3X = X+3 (the answer is 1.5). Its mystique stuck when physicist, Röngten discovered a new radiation, naming it X-ray because he didn’t know what it contained.
Sci Fi movies of the 50s and 60s typecast X in The X Form Outer Space, Strange World of Planet X and X — The Unknown. X’s role soon morphed into the anonymous — Malcolm X (commemorating his forgotten African lineage) and Brand X (cloaking the identity of a competitor’s product).
The 90s saw the remaking of X into legitimate, cool and cutting edge — X-Filme (Run Lola Run), the Xbox, QuarkXpress, Generation X (Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland) and The X Factor. Descarte’s printer would be glad to know that nowadays there’s no limit to X’s usage, especially when writing the ending to an email or a letter to a dear one where X + 3 = kiss kiss kiss.
From David Sacks’ book
biographies of A — Z
profiling each letter’s
for modern writers.