An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

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.

E was not always as glamourous as it has become. In the Irish State exam system, it still represents the grade at which failure starts. And its very commonality has also sometimes told against it. Although entitled to no fewer than 12 tiles in a Scrabble set, for example, it suffers the consequent contempt of familiarity, being valued at a miserly one point.

It can make or break many other words on the board. But it has none of the dangerous allure of J, or K, or Z, not to mention that most exiting of characters – X – whose entry into a Scrabble game usually causes a frisson.

To be sure, E has always been important. It is, among other thing, the beginning of end and the end of infinite. And it also has an uncanny ability, like a ventriloquist, to change the sound of a preceding vowel – from “strip” to “stripe”, for example – while itself seeming to do nothing.

And yet often, as in “infinite”, it performs not even that function, instead hanging around soundlessly and uselessly at the end of the word, like an appendix. The habit is especially insidious in certain surnames, such as Brown, or Green, or Smyth, all of which may have an E added without any effect, except – sometimes – to hint that the person is a Protestant.

(Curiously, the absence of a silent E – a double silence, if you like – can sometimes have the same effect. Consider “Dunne” and “Dunn” for example.)

More than any other letter, therefore, E can have a certain snob value in Ireland. And I’m not able to say if this was a factor in the case of the Offaly-born 19th-century scientist George Johnstone Stoney. I only note in passing that two of his four Es were useless, so that he could have been George Johnston Stony without sounding any different.

Then again, although he died 101 years ago, he is largely responsible for the letter’s subsequent rise to global domination. He it was who, in 1874, first identified a fundamental unit of electricity. A few years later, he also coined the term “electron” to describe it. And ever since then, his once-silent Es have been making plenty of noise.

* fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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