A recent tweet from @bengreenman posed the question: “I know that there are a number of one-letter words, but are there any words with no letters?” It got me wondering. Many of the examples that follow will be in a grey area of wordishness, and I’m liable to contradict myself and change my mind about some of them, but let’s see where it goes.
The first word-with-no-letters that occurred to me, probably because it’s in vogue, was +1. It has several uses. The one I see most is as a shorthand exclamation equivalent to Hear, hear! or I agree (+100 for I strongly agree), but it’s used increasingly often as a noun and a verb, with inflected forms like +1’s, +1’d, and +1’ing. Google+ is helping to popularise and standardise these forms, whose punctuation and morphology were explored in recent articles by Gabe Doyle and Ben Zimmer.
Ten-code numbers are codes, or even code words, but they’re not wordish enough to be words. Neither are the numbers in phrases like 20-20 hindsight, the terrible 2′s, and at 6′s and 7′s. Yet numbers do move beyond maths, codes, shorthand and set phrases to genuine lexical usage. Some become niche adjectives, and some get inflected beyond mere plurality; relatively few, however, seem to attain widespread or lasting currency.
Notable examples include 69, 86, 1337 (leet), and 404. Websites that return a 404 (“file not found”) error can be described as 404’d, 404ed, 404ing, 404-ing, and so on. A UK Post Office study found that 404 is also in colloquial use as an adjective meaning useless or clueless. Wordspy has an example from The Buffalo News, 1999:
It’s rather silly that teen flicks are racking up huge box office numbers and Hollywood’s acting like it’s some earth-shattering phenomenon. Studio execs, you’re so 404.
Other numbers, I’m not sure about. Do people use 007 in a wordy way? What about 5* meaning top quality, 7-11 for convenience store, 24/7 for round the clock, or 99 for ice cream cone with a chocolate flake? You’ll have noticed that some of these mix numbers with marks or symbols. Another word that does this is *69 (often written star 69), as in “I *69ed the call.”
There are words with no letters or numbers. I mentioned two when I retweeted the original question, to which @faduda replied with a good example: /. – a common abbreviation of Slashdot, e.g., “…when I got /.-ed” (meaning “when Slashdot linked to me”).
Another non-numerical example is @. On Twitter, I see phrases like “I @’d him” and “Just @ me”, where @ means “reply using Twitter’s @ function”. It fits the bill. A Twitter friend, KeriLynn, once @’d me to ask whether anyone had written about @’s use as a verb, but I’m none the wiser on that front.
♥, the heart symbol, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2011 as a new sense of the word heart. [Correction: the heart symbol was not added, just the lexical usage.] A commentary at the OED website says it
may be the first English usage to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper-stickers. It originated as a humorous reference to logos featuring a picture of a heart as a symbol for the verb love, like that of the famous ‘I ♥ NY’ tourism campaign. . . . heart v. has gone on to live an existence in more traditional genres of literature as a colloquial synonym for ‘to love’.
“I ♥ X” is a very productive snowclone, while the more convenient sideways heart <3 is rife in informal contexts both online and off. It too is a word without letters, and has led to variants like </3, <$ and <4. Urban Dictionary has many more: just search for <3.
You could make a case for other emoticons, like ((())) (hugs) and \\\/// (slaps) – the number of marks varies – though these usually contain a word in the middle. And how about :-* (kiss)? No? What if I say a couple were :-*ing, does that enhance its wordishness?
I’d like to include obscenicons, also called grawlixes – those strings of symbols and squiggles like £#@$*! that function as taboo utterances in comics and cartoons; the more creative include doodles and marks not found on any keyboards. Some obscenicons are quite transparent (e.g., @$$ and $#!+) but most are not directly translatable.
Along similar lines, a friend suggested ****, where the context makes it clear what word has been replaced, e.g. “You’re in deep ****, buster” or “What the **** is going on?” Censored profanities are a fascinating case, but **** probably can’t be considered a word in its own right. Even by my decadent standards.
If you disagree about one or some or all of these, or if you have more examples or suggestions, I’d love to hear about it. What have I missed? Have words with no letters been catalogued elsewhere? How do we decide what counts as a word and what doesn’t?
Updates: Translator Ayat Ghanem made the interesting point that “it seems as if logograms have crossed the ages and are back!” Logograms never really went away, but they may be enjoying a resurgence on account of the huge growth in typed communication, some of whose platforms strongly encourage concision.
Another Twitter user, @LetsGoDeeper, suggested 143 (“I love you”) and &, the ampersand. I don’t think these qualify: 143 is a coded phrase, and & is just a symbol.
The single-volume ODE has about ten ‘words’ made up of digits (including 9/11, 20/20, 24/7 but not including 101) at the very end of the dictionary – after the Zs.