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Pronounced /ˌlɪpəʊɡræˈmətɪst/Help with IPA

As opposed to pangrammatists, who strive to crowd all the letters of the alphabet into a composition of the very briefest scope, a lipogrammatist systematically leaves one letter of the alphabet out to produce the whimsical composition called a lipogram. This ditty from the nineteenth century avoids a certain vowel:

A jovial swain may rack his brain,
and tax his fancy’s might,
To quiz in vain, for ’tis most plain,
That what I say is right.

A lipogram without an e is the most difficult kind to write, since that’s the most common letter in English. There have been some celebrated modern examples. In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright published a 50,000-word novel, Gadsby, without a single e in it. The French author Georges Perec produced a 300-page tour-de-force in 1969, similarly without an e in sight, under the title La Disparition. It was translated into e-less English by Gilbert Adair in 1995 as A Void. We might ask ourselves why anyone would attempt such feats, but that question might take us too far into the murkier realms of human psychology.

Unusual constructions such as lipograms can critically limit an author, as crucial grammatical forms must not play a part in any composition. Though a good author might find avoiding a particular typographical symbol is not always too much of a handicap, it’s hard to maintain such an approach for long without producing writing that is a thoroughgoing oddity, as this part of my discussion plainly shows. Writing in this way for fifty thousand words would tax anybody’s brain, and might bring about a long-lasting loss of ability in a wordsmith!

The word lipogram is from the Greek lipogrammatos, lacking a letter, which derives from the verb leipein, to leave out, plus gramma, a letter. The first part has nothing to do with the modern prefix lipo-, fat, which is from a different Greek stem.

Page created 22 Mar. 2003

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Last modified: 22 March 2003.