An Irishman's Diary
THE letter E has never been as popular as it is today. From eBay to e-mail, this once-modest character has achieved greater prominence in the 21st century than at any previous time. It is undoubtedly the leading vowel of our age, despite strong competition from I, which is of course only a rival because it has the marketing muscle of the Apple Corporation behind it.
For all of I’s pretensions, however, E continues to dominate the world of computing. And to the letter’s prominence there can be added the continuing success of such phenomena as “E-coli poisoning” and Bruce Springsteen’s “E-Street Band”, both first recognised in the 1970s and, amazingly, still going strong.
You probably know that “E” is also the chemical symbol for Einsteinium. But I’m guessing that you didn’t know it’s the Roman numeral for 250, or that it represents the heaviest grade of sandpaper you can buy. I didn’t know that either, until I read it in one of my weirder reference books: Craig Conley’s A Dictionary of One-Letter Words.
Curiously, or maybe because he’s American, Conley neglects one of E’s greatest latter-day roles. Namely that, since 2002, it has been the symbol of Europe’s dominant currency. A currency whose highly-publicised troubles have only added to the letter’s fame.
Such is the current proliferation of e-words, especially those emanating from Silicon Valley, that it provoked the formation a few years ago of The Society for the Preservation of the Other 25 Letters of the Alphabet.
I’m not sure how widespread this organisation is: it sounds like something that might have begun and ended in a pub. Even so, Conley’s dictionary includes an excerpt from its manifesto – entitled “E-nough already!” – which was supposedly written by one Anton Vowl.
This last name may ring a bell for fans of French modernist literature, because Anton Vowl was also the central character in a cult 1969 novel, La Disparition, by Georges Perec.
Perec was one of a school of writers who enjoyed subjecting themselves to constraints (of the literary rather than masochistic variety, although the boundaries may occasionally have been blurred). In any case, he wrote La Disparition – all 300 pages of it – without using a single E.
It was eventually translated into English, still E-less, as A Void. And I’m afraid I haven’t read it in either language. But I gather one of the themes of the book is self-abnegation. Since the author’s own name was full of Es, all of them necessary to the pronunciation, he could hardly exist without them.