The term LIPOGRAM comes from the ancient Greek leipográmmatos, which means “leaving out a letter.” A lipogram, then, is a literary work in which one or more letters of the alphabet are excluded.
Try writing a page of text, leaving out, say, one of the five vowels—A, E, I, O, or U. It isn’t easy. Yet some industrious poets and prose writers have done just that and more, and produced some interesting lipograms.
Since the fifth letter of the alphabet, the letter E, occurs five times more often than any other letter in the English language, it presents the greatest challenge for lipogram writers. (The foregoing sentence, by the way, contains almost as many E’s as words—27 words, 23 E’s.)
Not only is E the most common letter in our language, it controls the sounds of other letters. In words such as like and mute, it controls the letters i and u. In words such as changeable, it softens the sound of g. What a marvelous letter to have in the alphabet. It seems absolutely indispensable. Yet some writers have shown that it isn’t.
As an example, the following poem omits the letter E, and as an added feature, each stanza contains every letter of the alphabet except E.
A jovial swain should not complain
Of any buxom fair,
Who mocks his pain and thinks it gain
To quiz his awkward air.
Quixotic boys who look for joys
Quixotic hazards run;
A lass annoys with trivial toys,
Opposing man for fun.
A jovial swain may rack his brain,
And tax his fancy’s might;
To quiz is vain, for ‘tis most plain
That what I say is right.
Lipograms go back at least to ancient Greek times as the term leipográmmatos indicates. The epic poet Triphiodorus (c. 3rd century), for instance, wrote an Odyssey in which the first book omitted the first letter of the alphabet, the second book the second letter, and so on to the end of the work.
Similarly, in ancient Rome, Fulgentius (late 5th-early 6th century) divided one of his prose works into twenty-three chapters, the first chapter containing no letter A, the second chapter no B, and continuing all the way through the twenty-three letters of the Latin alphabet.
The remarkably prolific Spanish author Lope de Vega (1562-1635) wrote about 3,000 sonnets, 1,800 plays, and a variety of other verse and prose forms. Five of his novels were lipograms. Each novel excluded one of the five vowels.
An English author in the nineteenth century accomplished something even more difficult. He wrote a work in which E was the only vowel used—A, I, O, and U were omitted.
In more recent times, Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939) published in the year of his death a 260-page novel titled Gadsby. (The work has no connection with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1929 classic, The Great Gatsby.) The text of Wright’s novel contains 50,110 words but not a single letter E. You can read the entire work at http://spinelessbooks.com/gadsby/.