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WordPlay: What is a Lipogram?

Updated on March 23, 2015
Lipograms require omitting one or more letters.
Lipograms require omitting one or more letters. | Source

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.

"A crimson bloom..."
"A crimson bloom..." | Source

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.”

"Mary had a little lamb, the bleached and chalky kind..."
"Mary had a little lamb, the bleached and chalky kind..." | Source

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."

Maybe it is just exercise for the brain.
Maybe it is just exercise for the brain. | Source

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?

See results

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

Type
Definition
Anagram
Rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase
Palindrome
A word or phrase that reads the same in either direction (live devil)
Neologism
Creating new words
Oxymoran
A combination of two contradictory terms (jumbo shrimp)
Pun
Deliberately mixing two similar-sounding words

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

Please write comments or our own lipograms here.

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    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 2 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Very nice and informative hub about Lipogram. Voted up.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. Word play can be fun.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I'm a retired English teacher but I've never heard of a lipogram so thank you for educating me today! Ok, let's try a bit of Shakespeare too, without an 'o':

      'If music be the food of love, give me excess of it!' becomes -

      If music be a meal that pleases, make sure my guitar always sings!

      No, not very good, but there we are. Thanks for the challenge.

      Great hub and great fun!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Your example made me laugh so I have to say that it was indeed good. Thank you for that. I came across the subject of lipograms in a newsletter for the first time this week, and then I researched it. One thing about hubs, I learn something new everyday. Like lipograms, they are exercise for the mind.

    • profile image

      Linda Fessel 2 years ago

      I couldn't resist the challenge. I took "Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars." Without an e, I came up with

      "Hurl my body to that nightly shining orb, and grant my wish to frolic through cosmic starry dust." (Great fun!)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I love it. Thanks for playing. I might have to think up some kind of prize for the best lipograms.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      That's really good, Linda. You've started something here, Catherine!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      So do one, annart. I've seen your work. I KNOW you can do it. I love seeing them.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I'll have a think and come back to you with a better one than the I gave you last time!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      So sorry. I forgot that you already did one. I get to play the senior card and blame it on menopause and short term memory loss.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      That's ok. I'll have another go anyway, the first one was terrible!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Annart: I thought it was wonderful.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      This was very interesting Catherine. I had grown up filling in crosswords and doing many other puzzles in books and magazines so I had heard of that word, I had just forgotten the meaning. Your Hub reminded me. It was great! I accepted your challenge and wrote them below.

      Romeo and Juliet

      "A maroon blossom of another brand

      leaves perfume in the fragrance gland"

      Hamlet

      "Shall I stay or shall I go? This is my frustration."

      I voted this up, shared and pinned it.

      Kevin

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you so much for sharing and pinning and voting up. I liked your lipograms, especially "shall I stay or shall I go." It closely adheres to the original and makes an allusion to a rock song. I'm glad I was able to revive your interest in this "art form."

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 2 years ago from Washington, DC

      This is a pretty amazing hub. I had never heard of a lipogram. Very informative and fun. I'll have to put sometime aside to try one later. Voted up and interesting.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I'm so glad you say so. Do stop by again. I can't stop doing lipograms. (This post is without a you-know-what.) Thank you for high marks.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I don't want to edit the hub so I'll post my new lipograms here. The starting text is "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 1: How do I display how fond I am of you? I can count many ways. 2: How do I talk to you about how I am struck by Cupid's arrow? I can say many things.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I said I'd pop back with something else.

      How about 2 book titles:

      Pride & Prejudice without 'i' becomes

      Nose upwards & Friend-Fussy

      Far from the Madding Crowd without 'a' becomes

      Miles from Rushing, Crushing People

      I'm still working on it! Thanks for the challenge. My vote would go to Kevin.

      Ann

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you so much Annart. I laughed with delight. Kevin did a really great lipogram, but I think if I were judging a contest, you would be neck and neck.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Glad it gave you some mirth! Ann

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Playing with words is such fun stuff! Thanks for a day brightener. Here’s a first attempt, no Is:

      Original Quote:

      Think left and think right and think low and think high, oh, the things you can think if you only try! --Dr. Suess

      Zero Is:

      Ponder left, ponder the reverse, ponder down and ponder up, oh the stuff you can ponder if only you wonder!

      You’ve reminded me of an old HP Challenge Writing Skills, http://hubpages.com/forum/topic/64357, that was a fun exercise to do. Writing a short story in LESS than 10 words gives a chance to think left, think right, think low, think high... :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      RTaloni--brilliant lipogram. It's funny and it rhymes. I just love it. What do you think about me taking all of these lipograms and making a hub and then let people vote for the best one. I would credit the authors of course. Or maybe it could be some kind of HP challenge. I'll have to look into it--I have no idea how that would work. In the meantime, thank you for sharing. the link doesn't work. I search the forum by topic.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      RTalloni's is brilliant! So is your idea for making a hub or a challenge - go for it!

      Ann

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      As soon as I collect a few more and have time to look into how to do it I'll take this further with a new hub or challenge.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Well thanks! We probably have Dr. S. to thank mostly for his work is easy to work with. :)

      The idea of taking this to the next level sounds fun. Others have already been very creative here and it will be interesting to see what new ones come in. I'll try again:

      Original Quote

      What is the essence of America?  Finding and maintaining that perfect, delicate balance between freedom "to" and freedom "from."  ~Marilyn vos Savant

      No Cs:

      What is the spirit of America?

      Gaining and perpetuating the plumb

      of ideal, fragile equity between

      freedom “to” and freedom “from.”

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Another great lipogram. "Finding the plumb" is such great word-craft. I'll work on that "next level" next week. Who knows? Perhaps it will be the new ice-bucket challenge. I'm hoping more people will get involved with writing lipograms first. It starts to get addictive, doesn't it?

    • Swisstoons profile image

      Thomas F. Wuthrich 2 years ago from Michigan

      Excellent! I'd never heard of lipograms. Fascinating stuff...particularly the fact that entire books have been written without a particular letter. I applaud you for your rewrites of the Shakespeare passages. Very nicely done! :D

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Swisstoons. Why don't you give it a try to post it here. It only takes a few minutes to do one. If you like cross word puzzles and word games, you will find it to be fun.u

    • Swisstoons profile image

      Thomas F. Wuthrich 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for the invite, Catherine! Years ago, I did construct and sell some crosswords to puzzle magazines...and sold a couple dozen funny gag puzzles based on a telephone's keypad to Dell. I'm pretty good at solving cryptograms, if I do say so myself. ETAOINSHRDLU...the most commonly used letters in the English language...in order! :D I'll have to give Lipograms a try...when I have some free time! Thanks, again!

    • Swisstoons profile image

      Thomas F. Wuthrich 2 years ago from Michigan

      I'm back! Thank you again so much for your invitation. But try as I might, I'm finding it so so difficult to avoid using that most common of all our ABCs . You know which symbol I'm talking about. Trying to construct a lipogram whilst avoiding it is hard . It's so hard, in fact, I almost quit trying! But...wait...wait... I think I finally got it. This is it! I know it's not much, but it's all I could do this morning!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Yeah! Great job, Swisstoons. The longest one yet. Maybe you can write the next 50,000 word novel without that most common letter. I especially love the "whilst"--so clever.

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 2 years ago from North Carolina

      What fun! I had never heard of lipograms. I will definitely have some fun playing with these. Great hub! Superb presentation.

      Best,

      Kim

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks. ocfireflies. I hope you will try to do one and post it here. I love reading them.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      This is fascinating and fun!!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Audrey. Why not give it a try?

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Very interesting, have never heard of that word "Lipogram".

      I will certainly have a go with the challenge, end January, plenty of time.

      Thanks for sharing this with us, as you said "Good for the mind", nice start for the new year.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Elsie for accepting the lipogram challenge. Once you choose the quote you want to rewrite, it shouldn't take too long. Under 15 minutes. I find it a challenge and fun.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Hmm, now to find a suitable quote and go lipogramming. I shall return with the finished result.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Jodah for your participation. I know it will be a great one.

    • DaphneDL profile image

      Daphne D. Lewis 2 years ago from Saint Albans, West Virginia

      Words and word games are so much fun. Lipograms are new to me, but I'm going to try to find one to do for the challenge. Loved this post!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      DaphneDL: I so glad you told me you love this post and that you want to take the Lipogram challenge. I'll be looking for your entry. It is not as hard as it might seem. You should be able to do one I about five minutes. It's fun like doing a cross-word puzzle.

    • DaphneDL profile image

      Daphne D. Lewis 2 years ago from Saint Albans, West Virginia

      It sounds fun so we'll see what I can come up with for the challenge. Have a great day!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      My lipogram musing - Good work on your part. I can say that it's gigantically hard to author quality words without using that fifth position in our list of alphas. It turns out funny, as is obvious from this musing. You know what's missing. Wow. I did it! That was fun.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      I have made a hub on nursery rhymes using the letter "O" it was fun really made me think.

      Thanks for the challenge. https://hubpages.com/literature/lipogram-word-play...

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      DaphneDL: I'm glad you accepted the Lipogram challenge. I can't wait to see what you will come up with.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Glenn Stok: Hooray, Mr. Stok, you did it. Can you rework a famous saying containing no word with "you-know-what" in it? If so, you must submit it and try to win the favor of our evaluators of lipogramatic quality.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I just did one. I took a tongue twister and removed the twister. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" becomes "Bilbo Baggins bought a bunch of brined bananas." (As in banana peppers). Or would "habarneros" be better?

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Thanks, Catherine. I had fun with that last one. But now for my entry into the Lipogram Challenge, I found this famous saying by Martin H. Fischer:

      "Life is a ticket to the greatest show on earth."

      My rendition without the E's:

      "Living affords a coupon for a top show in our world."

      I love this kind of stuff. I also wrote two hubs about playing with words - one about using Alliterations and another with Interjections in Sentences.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Glenn for taking the challenge. I will look for your word-play hubs.

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 2 years ago from West By God

      I have never heard of these. Thanks for sharing and I voted it up.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Lady Guinevere: Thank you for your comment and or voting up. Lipograms are fun. I'm glad you enjoyed learning about them.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      From the Elvis Presley song "In the Ghetto".

      Original "..and another little baby child was born in the ghetto..and a momma cried..."

      Without the letter "o"

      ..and an additional little baby child was birthed in the slums...and a mamma cried...

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks, Jodah that is a fun one. I decided I'm going to ask 3 literary friends to be the judges because they will be unbiased.

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 2 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Glad to have a refresher on what a lipogram is.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Sandy. Have you taken the challenge yet? It closes on Jan.31. I'd love to have you participate. I've lined up some judges.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      The deadline for the lipogram challenge is Sunday 1/31. Get your entries in.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Sorry. I got the day wrong. The deadline or the Lipogram Challenge is Saturday 1/31 at midnight EST. it only takes a few minutes to do one, so give it a try.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      One thing I love so much about HubPages is I learn new things daily.

      This sounds like a fun endeavor to try.....thanks for the heads up

      Angels are on the way ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      ps: Thanks for commenting. I hope you give it a try. There are still a few hours before the deadline for the challenge.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      This is the first time I heard of a lipogram. It sounds very interesting and quite challenging. Thanks for such a useful article.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      grand old lady: Give it a try. You should be able to do one in under 10 minutes. It's a great brain-teaser. Thanks for your comment.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Was this ever judged Catherine?

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      My apologies Jodah. Only a few people submitted a lipogram so I just dopped the idea of a contest. There weren't any prizes in this contest so I didn't go through with the judging. I hope everyone who wrote a lipogram had fun with it, tho.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Ok no problem Catherine, was just wondering.Thanks.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Catherine with the update. I did enjoy writing one and still may write more.

      Have a nice day.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Elsie: Please do write one and post it here. I enjoyed your nursery rhyme lipogram hub.

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