- Books, Literature, and Writing
WordPlay: What is a Lipogram?
What is a lipogram?
Lipogram refers to any text composed of words which lack a particular letter. It may be prose of poetry.
Lipo means "lacking; without," and gram comes from gramma, meaning "letter."
Composing a lipogram forces the writer to refrain from using many ordinary words. It can be very difficult to compose grammatically correct, meaningful, and smooth-flowing prose or poetry when this constraint is applied.
The earliest lipograms may have been composed in the sixth century BC. None of them has survived.
What is the most difficult letter to omit?
Because the letter “E” is the most common in the English language, the most challenging lipograms exclude the letter “E.”
I tried a phrase from Shakespeare’s soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. It is 10 words, with 36 letters with 6 “E’s”
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
It took a while, but I came up with this rhyme:
“A crimson bloom of an unknown brand
is just as fragrant to an olfactory gland.”
Next I tried my hand at a couplet from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Only four "E's"--should be easy. It wasn't.
"To be or not to be? That is the question."
Without using any "E's," the best I could do was this clunker. However, credit where credit is due: I did manage a near-rhyme with "oblivion" and "conundrum."
"To stay in this mortal world or by my own hand go to oblivion? That is my conundrum."
Have entire novels been written as a lipograms?
Entire novels have been written a lipograms.
In 1939, Ernest Vincent Writer published “Gadsby: 50,000 Word Novel Without the Letter E.” The plot concerns a fictional city, Brandon. This dying city is revitalized by the efforts of the protagonist, John Gadsby.
In the introduction to the book, Wright said that the most difficult part was avoiding past-tense verbs that ended in “ed.” Instead of saying “he talked” he had to say “He did talk.”
The copyright expired in 1968 and the book is now in the public domain.
Here is the opening paragraph of the book. Notice that some of his sentences seem a bit tortured. Frankly, I don’t know how he did it without a computer with a “find” function to make sure he didn’t inadvertently include an “e”
"If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that "a child don't know anything." A child's brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, in to which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult's act, and figuring out its purport."
After trying to do just one sentence without the letter “e”, I can attest to the enormity of his accomplishment.
Georges Perec, who was openly inspired by Gadsby, wrote a novel La Disparition in 1969 without the letter “E”, the most common letter in the French language as it is in the English language. (It’s English translation, A Void by Gilbert Adair, is also missing the letter "E.") Perec subsequently turned the tables on himself and wrote Les Revenentes in 1972, a novel that uses no vowels except for "E".
The Wonderful O by James Thurber, a children’s book published in 1957, does not use the letter “O.” The book tells the story about pirates who take over the island of Ooroo and ban the letter “O.”
What are other examples of lipograms?
Peter Blinn composed a lipogram based on "Mary Had a Little Lamb" without using the letter “O.”
Everyone knows the original nursery rhyme.
"Mary had a little lamb
Ifs fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go."
Here is Peter Brinn’s lipogramatic version. He only had to avoid three letter “O’s,” but it required a lot of rewriting.
"Mary had a little lamb
The bleached and chalky kind
And everywhere she went, the lamb
Was rarely left behind."
Ernest Vincent Wright, author of Gadsby, enjoyed turning famous sayings into lipogrammatic form.
He took William Congreve’s line from his 1697 play, The Mourning Bride,"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," and transformed it into "Music calms a wild bosom.”
He took a line from John Keat’s poem Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and transformed it to "A charming thing is a joy always."
More Lipogram Variations
A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once.
A pangrammatic lipogram (or lipogrammatic pangram) is a text that uses every letter of the alphabet except one. A well-known example is--"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."-- which omits "S".
Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel has been called univocalic.
What are variations on lipograms?
Some folks really get carried away with the idea.
In 1974, Walter Albish wrote a novel, Alphabetical Africa. The first chapter uses only words beginning with "A." The second chapter uses only words beginning with "B," and so on. In chapter 26, Albish places no restrictions n the initial letter of the words he uses. Then, for the next 25 chapters, he reverses the process.
Fate of Nassan is an anonymous poem dating from pre-1870. Each stanza is lipogrammatic pangram (using every letter of the alphabet except "E"). The first verse is:
"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.”
In Christian Bok’s 2001 novel. Eunoia, each chapter is restricted to a single vowel. 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."
Why do people write lipograms?
The short answer is, “Because they can.” It is done just for fun, to impress the world with one’s cleverness, or for the thrill of solving a difficult puzzle, as for instance doing a difficult crossword puzzle.
Or maybe someone has just had some tramautic experience with a certain letter and must now avoid the psychic pain associated with the sight or sound of that letter. (Just kidding.)
John Sturroc, a literary critic wrote, “The 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."
Try it yourself. Take any poem, story, or line and rewrite it without using a specific letter. No fair choosing the least common letters: Q, V, X, Z.
Are you ready to try your own lipogram?
How do I write a lipogram?
As with everything, there is no one right way to write a lipogram. Here is how I do it.
First, I think of a line or quote that I like. I write it down and circle the letters that I will need to remove.
Second, I try to rewrite the line, staying as close to the original, and the original meaning, as I can.
If I can simply change out the word with the offending letter with a synonym, great. However, it usually requires finding another way of making the same point.
Third, I try to stay true to the "mood" of the original as well. It may be formal, playful, poetic, musical, etc.
A short phrase should only take a few minutes. Even though I had never done lipograms before, I did mine in under five minutes.
Give it a try. Have fun. Remember it is word-PLAY.
Some Types of Word-Play
Rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase
A word or phrase that reads the same in either direction (live devil)
Creating new words
A combination of two contradictory terms (jumbo shrimp)
Deliberately mixing two similar-sounding words
© 2014 Catherine Giordano