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 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. 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 verb heart was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2011 as a new sense of the word. I mention this here because the OED commentary 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.
A recent post by The Virtual Linguist (see her comment here) looked at 101 and the different ways dictionaries treat ‘words’ with no letters:
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.
Would words like K7 also qualify? It’s French, not English; and is simply shorthand for cassette, which has the same pronunciation. Not unlike much of the SMS texting shorthands; like 4u2 = ‘for you too’, or w8 for ‘wait’.
But of these, only ‘4’ and ‘2’ don’t contain letters.
I wonder if there weren’t much more of these around back when writers weren’t limited to keyboards and the Unicode character set (or worse, some specific code page). I’m afraid they didn’t work their way into print very often, though.
/nitpick: AFAIK, ./ing is not so much being linked to by slashdot, as your web server not being able to cope with the ensuing visits.
Thanks for your comment, Martijn. K7, 4u2 and w8 don’t qualify because they have letters: k, u and w, respectively. But you could argue for 4 and 2 on their own in the middle example.
People who use symbol-rich keyboards or jargon might be more likely to have words with no letters (we need a word for these!) in their repertoire.
You’re right that /.ing can also mean being linked to by /. or a non-Slashdot site heavily enough to slow or crash your server, or at least superbump your traffic (the “Slashdot effect“), but for simplicity’s sake I ignored this technicality in the post.
Fascinating post. I thought you were going to mention a different meaning of 69 for a moment. I wasn’t aware of its use in telephony.
How about the good old :-) which sometimes gets automagically converted into the symbol ☺ and can be read as “smile”.
Also currency symbols – are they words?
An obvious one that was overlooked is 411, as in “What’s the 411 on her?” In the U.S., 411 is (or was) the number you would dial for telephone information, but it lives on away from telecommunications. Don’t know whether 411 has become a verb yet (it’s rather difficult to search for), but I could see “I 411’d her” popping up its head.
Other considerations: 911, for calling an ambulance or the cops. 9/11, which doesn’t so much refer to the date as to the disaster. 301, for being redirected or detoured.
[…] A post about words with no letters from Sentence First: https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/do-you-%E2%99%A5-words-with-no-letters/ […]
Frank: Actually, it was the other meaning of 69 I intended! I would have clarified this with a link, but I didn’t find a suitable one, and besides, there could be children reading. The classic smiley emoticon can indeed be read as “smile”, but it seems more like a paralinguistic tag to me, a non-verbal icon for encoding gesture. But there might be a case for them in some instances. (If there’s a linguist in the house, feel free to chip in.) Currency symbols are just symbols, but I’ll keep an eye out for ways they might be used more wordishly.
Andy: Thanks for the examples. 411 looks like a good one, though it isn’t obvious to someone living outside your continent. In “What’s the 411 on her?”, I don’t think 411 functions as a word so much as a code, but “I 411’d her” feels significantly different. I don’t have clear criteria for deciding whether a maybe-word is a word, but common inflection for tense would be one of them. And Google returns several hits for precisely that phrase.
[…] (Others called them "obscenicons.") Writer Stan Carey gives a shout out to grawlixes in a recent post on words without letters. Other terms include 86, a verb meaning "to refuse to serve a customer," […]
[…] them “obscenicons.”) Writer Stan Carey gives a shout out to grawlixes in a recent post on words without letters. Other terms include 86, a verb meaning “to refuse to serve a […]
If that’s the wordless answer, the wordless question must be:
What about 101, as in the elementary class of a (US) university course? Economics 101, etc. By extension it’s used in a vernacular sense to mean ‘very basic’. “How could you not know that? It’s Linguistics 101.”
Are they words with no letters, or are they actually new letters? What is the definition of a letter, and does it need to be updated?
Ah, Stan, I should have delivered a link. It’s the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, and thus to your question, too.
John: I like the suggestion, but I don’t think it counts. To me, X 101 is a phrase with a variable word and a number. Web 2.0 is similar: it has a well-known meaning, and can be extended to just about anything supposedly new and improved, but its numerical part remains just that.
Russell: Good question. But I would retain the traditional definition of a letter, for example the American Heritage Dictionary‘s “A written symbol or character representing a speech sound and being a component of an alphabet.” So just A to Z.
Sean: No need, Sean, but thanks. My lone ? was an attempt to ask Mr Adams’s ultimate question without the use of letters.
“…7-11 for convenience store, 24/7 for round the clock, or 99 for ice cream cone with a chocolate flake? …Another word that does this is *69 (often written star 69), as in “I *69ed the call.””
I definitely hear 24/7 in speech on a regular basis (NYC area). It’s a little less common to hear *69 now that caller i.d. is so prevalent, but it was definitely common for a while, especially when talking about catching a prank caller or a stalker in the act: “He tried to deny it, but I had totally *69’d his ass and told him to cut it out!” :)
What about 4:20 as code for “time to smoke pot”?
I hear 24/7 quite often too, limr, but I don’t consider that sufficient; it would need to be used in a particularly word-like way. Maybe it is, but until I see some evidence I’m withholding my vote! Someone else suggested 4:20 to me (as a word with no letters, not as a proposition). It seems more like a code – in the same set as CB signals.
[…] gone mad, and Stan Carey fought fire with “firefighter.” On his own blog, Mr. Carey discussed words with no letters, such as ♥, @, +1, and […]
Great topic. Interesting, I wasn’t aware that *69 was used outside of Canada. As for @, I hadn’t realized that people were using it as in the Twitter examples you’ve given. When I @’d you (there, I’ve used it that way now) on Twitter to say I found its inclusion on your list dubious, it wasn’t because I don’t think @ is a word; I do. It was because, although it’s a symbol, it does have the letter A in it.
Thanks for your comment, Chris. Though *69 is not in my idiolect, I have encountered it in books and films, and now and then in conversation. Your point about @ containing a is interesting. Presumably the symbol was created by extension of the letter (the history is uncertain), but I think it’s very much a non-letter symbol in its own right; the a embedded in its structure doesn’t invalidate it from inclusion here any more than does the apparent S in $.
Very interesting topic, even more so for non-native speakers.
Maybe translatability could help decide what counts as a word and what doesn’t? Usually 2.0 is carried over unchanged in translation, and so is 101 if it is part of a [course] name. However, if 101 is used generically to mean “the basics”, in most target languages a word will be used instead, e.g. an article or a Help topic called Infographics 101 should be translated as Introduzione all’infografica or Elementi di infografica in Italian.
[…] Aggiornamento agosto 2011: davvero interessante Do you ♥ words with no letters?, un intervento di Stan Carey sulle parole senza lettere, con molti esempi di numeri […]
Translatability is a useful angle from which to think about this, Licia, but I’m not sure that it bears directly upon whether a number, say, is or is not a word. In the generic X 101, the number is always accompanied by a word (with letters), and as such is part of a formulaic phrase. Whether or not it translates directly has more to do with how much currency an expression has, and whether there’s an obvious phrase into which it translates; these don’t affect wordishness as I think of it, though maybe others would disagree. Thank you for the link from your blog, by the way.
“In the generic X 101, the number is always accompanied by a word (with letters), and as such is part of a formulaic phrase.”
It’s not so common in Europe, I think, nor so transparent, and it’s not an expression that would come naturally to me, but it’s easy to imagine people using 101 predicatively (just follow the setup instructions, they’re 101), as an adjective meaning basic, facile, insufficiently detailed. Has anyone heard it used like that in the wild?
And can I suggest as a verb meaning ‘end’? As in
Mmm. The last line didn’t make sense because the form tried htlm code as htlm code, which is fair enough. Let me try again.
Is a verb in, for example, ?
Sorry about this. One last go. Some people use the closing signs for hltm code around words like ‘rant’, ‘complaint’, ‘own-trumpet blowing’ etc, to mean ‘rant etc ends’. Are the symbols a verb there?
I see the A in @ more than the S inherent in the dollar sign. Probably because @ stands for ‘at’ (or ‘ad’ as the case may be). In your link to the history of @, it’s most interesting that in the sidebar, the chart of links to currency symbols is alphabetical, but the $ is placed as if it were a D. Yet in none of the possible origins for the $ sign does it come from the word dollar.
I used to know some New Zealand English speakers who would refer to a convenience store as a 2-4 (pronounced two-four) because it was open 24 hours a day.
Long before the terrible BOGOF acronym appeared we were using the much nicer 241, which has no letters.
CIngram: You’re right, it is easy to imagine 101 used like that, freed from its familiar phrasal context. I haven’t, and I’m unlikely to hear it used like that here (in Ireland), but if I can I’ll look into it online. Closing html tags (I’ll try square brackets: [/rant]) are an interesting suggestion. They overlap in some ways with Twitter hashtags, which are spreading beyond their original location. I don’t know how to categorise either. In neither case are the symbols verbs, I think; like emoticons, they seem more like paralinguistic features.
Chris: Yes, a is semantically part of @ in a way S is not of $. When I referred to the “apparent S” in the dollar sign, I meant it contained an S solely in a visual sense, but it shares with @ a typographical disctinctness from the letter ‘within’. I still think @, whatever its origin, is a non-letter symbol unto itself, but I see how some might interpret it otherwise. Good observation about Wikipedia’s placement of $. I suppose it has to go somewhere, and regardless of source it makes more sense to file it as “dollar” than anywhere else.
Lauren: Thanks for letting me know. That sounds like a similar usage to 7–11. A vernacular code, but not a fully-fledged word, in my opinion, unless it was extended somehow (e.g., “Let’s 2–4 it”).
Adam: Interesting example. Since the 4 stands for for, 241 is a hybrid: two digits standing for themselves, the other for a word; the whole adding up to a phrase.
Mathematical symbols? Music notation? Three dots in triangle for ‘therefore’? Each have been used as lexical items in text. Each have a corresponding sound. Some are, like $?@€¥£, evolutions of letters.
I’m not sure. Wordiness might be more a continuum of more wordy and less wordy with clear absolutes and shades of grey in between.
I also remember a year or so ago a post on the Language Log asking what part of speech the stroke in and/or, heaven/hell, potato/potarto etc was. I think the writer finally said it was some kind of conjunction, but he was certainly taking it as read that it was a word.
Thanks, Stan. Very interesting. I’m late catching up with blogs after the holiday weekend in the UK, but coincidentally, my post yesterday was on 101. What interests me about all these digits and symbols is how dictionaries treat them differently. If I want to look up @ in the OED or ODE I have to go to the entry ‘at sign’ (between Atropos and attaboy in ODE). It also appears in a short list of symbols after the Zs in ODE. The OED has a list of symbols after the Zs, too, but @ isn’t one of them. @ isn’t in Collins at all.
Russell makes an interesting point about the definition of ‘letter’. If a letter is ‘a symbol or character’ in the singular, is the Duth ij a letter? Or the Welsh ll or ff? Or are there two symbols/characters there?
I appreciate the word play here, but I just wanted to add another perspective here. Linguistically, I’m not sure how these can qualify as words. @ means “at” for email, but something slightly different in accounting or computer programming. In linguistics, letters form discrete units called words. Thus, I would say that words without letters is really a non-question. These are symbols only.
Jodie: Thanks for the suggestions. I’m not sure about them! Your examples can represent a word or phrase (or sound or idea), and can be used in text, but does their usage go beyond straightforward this-stands-for-that symbolism? I agree that it’s more a continuum than an either-or scenario, and even plotting the continuum is fraught with ambiguity and subjective judgement.
CIngram: You probably mean this post, from almost exactly a year ago. It’s a fascinating and relevant post – thanks for reminding me. I remember deciding (correctly, as it turned out) that slash was being used as a coordinator, and I included the article in a links round-up the following month.
Bryan: Thanks for your input. Your idea of what is or can be a word is a lot stricter than mine. Yes, letters form words, but it doesn’t automatically follow that all words are composed only of letters. W00t is clearly a word, but half of its ‘letters’ are numbers. Are tsk and Zzzzz… words, or just arrangements of letters signifying non-word sounds? I don’t mean any of this facetiously – I think there’s a grey area, with fuzzy boundaries. Look up word in a few reliable dictionaries, and you will see that letters, where they are mentioned at all, are peripheral to the main meaning. Writing follows speech rather than dictating its limits. Some languages have never been written down, so letters really are not necessary to a definition of words.
Virtual Linguist: Thanks for your thoughtful comment (which hid in the spam folder until I checked it today, hence my delay in replying). I had read and enjoyed your piece on 101, and added the link to my notes for a future update of this post.
That dictionaries treat some of these examples so differently is interesting but unsurprising: they straddle different patches of the word/symbol terrain, and people will characterise them differently according to whether they find them more one thing or another. Presumably there’s been some discussion of these categories in academic journals, but I didn’t search for it.
Here’s a little poem that may interest you, by John Atherton:
3s (to be sung by Niels Bohr)
I think that I shall never c
A # lovelier than 3;
3 < 6 or 4,
And than 1 it's slightly more.
All things in nature come in 3s,
Like ∴s, trios, Q.E.D.'s;
And $s gain more dignity
When thus augmented: 3 × 3.
A 3 whose slender curves are pressed
By banks, for compound interest;
Oh would that, paying loans or rent,
My rates were only 3%!
3² expands with rapture free,
And reaches toward ∞,
3 complements each x and y
And intimately lives with π.
A circle's # of °s
Are best ÷d up by 3s,
But wrapped in dim obscurity
Atoms are split by men like me,
But only God is 1 in 3.
(If you don't recognize the original, it's Trees, by Joyce Kilmer.)
It’s really hard for me to understand it..
BingoLi, here’s how you would pronounce it:
I think that I shall never see
A number lovelier than three;
Three is less than six or four,
And than one it’s slightly more.
All things in nature come in threes,
Like therefores, trios, cue ee dees;
And dollars gain more dignity
When thus augmented: three times three.
A three whose slender curves are pressed
By banks, for compound interest;
Oh would that, paying loans or rent,
My rates were only three percent!
Three squared expands with rapture free,
And reaches toward infinity,
Three complements each ex and wye
And intimately lives with pi.
A circle’s number of degrees
Are best divided up by threes,
But wrapped in dim obscurity
Is the square root of minus three.
Atoms are split by men like me,
But only God is one in three.
John: Very clever! (I recognised the original, yes, but appreciated the link for close comparison.) Now I’m left wondering what kind of singing voice Niels Bohr had. I expect he’d have done the poem justice regardless.
No- I don’t like the heart sign for “like”- there’s a kind of smarmy sentimentality that makes me cringe. Numbers for words are good- it’s a neat linguistic trick. However, t the back of my mind, I wonder if Twitter is condensing language a bit too much. Language should expand and cover more and more shades opf meaning.
apologies for the typos above.
Very interesting subject, as a graphic designer in training it’s always encouraged to be able to sum up large amounts of data in a few, if not one image. So some of the examples you talked about which have multiple connatations (particularly the number ones) were good to read. I agree with Jackspratt823 though, it becomes ever more irritating that language has become so condensed by the likes of Twitter and perhaps the internet in general, that it starts to come across as more lazy than convenient or clever. You have no idea the amount of times I get put off by the guys (and some gals) who try to woo me via ‘txtspk’. Most of them are really good face to face, and I wouldn’t call anyone of them ‘stupid’ but I’m sorry:
‘Hey bbz u fncy cmn ova 2nit?’
The passion is gone.
Wonderful post on a fascinating topic! Enjoyed the read fully. I, like Jenny here, secretly judge people who use text-speak. And anything that elicits “LOL-ing” deserves a better response than that gibberish.
great blog entry! so interesting
Symbols are powerful tools, especially in written dialogue, but using them too much convinces me either A. the speaker is fourteen years old and can only type with their thumbs or B. the speaker is a robot. A person’s writing tells you a lot about the eloquence of their mind and it’s difficult to be fascinated by a pubescent teen or a machine.
;) very interesting article, bravo!
Interesting article; enjoyed it. :) I never really thought about symbols becoming legit words. :) Thanks for posting.
Very cool post. Enjoyed the read.
Speaking of /. (which I also attach negative connotations to, but I agree your definition is simpler and accurate), I offer for consideration />, which for a short time meant ‘end rant’… referring to the html conventions of ending any command such as bold, underline, etc.. with those symbols. Maybe that’s a ‘paralinguistic tag’ as well though (I learn so much here!).
Another whole sub-topic could be body language as words.. not speaking of actual sign language, but I’m thinking of for instance the air quotes gesture that people make, to add irony/derision etc.. to what they’re saying. Of course that wouldn’t be a word, but a conversational unit of some sort.
Also, this was interesting, about kids having developed highly structured usage rules for texts:
the only part strictly relevant might be that this: ‘::” (two colons) apparently indicates motion. Word status though? I leave it to the reader.
My children and I have a saying, I heart you! May sound silly, but we use it even thought my kids are adults! Guess it is like words without symbols! What do you think?
Good topic for conversation.This is the kind of stuff that people tend to dislike in social media.
I meant using this kind of ‘words’.
I use <3, 404, +1, :-* more often. My ex-boyfriend always said 143 whenever I picked up his call. I never heard it anywhere else except today. After 11 years! Anyway, nice post.
Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
best post i’ve read today, ill try to use some of it
This is wonderful and interesting post. Fascinated me. Thank you, with my love, nia
Thanks for all your comments and ideas; and welcome, new subscribers. A few quick thoughts:
segmation: “I heart you” developed from the “I ♥ NY” slogan. My post has some information on this. Used as you describe it, it doesn’t sound silly to me – playful, maybe, but sincere too.
Deanna: Unfortunately, that doesn’t count because K is a letter.
Claire: “/>” is a great example, thank you! I’ve seen “End (of) rant” turn into “/rant” and similar, but I don’t recall noticing a version without any letters. I’d classify air quotes as a gesture – a different sub-topic, as you say. (Anne Curzan’s article on texting was interesting; I left a comment.)
Have the codes we use to find out who phoned last or to pick up a message entered the language yet?
Sue: In paragraph 6 of the post I mention *69 – there are examples on record of it being used in phrases such as “I *69ed the call.”
Sorry, I didn’t quite recognise that. We use 1471 here! Sue
Ah! I imagine 1471 has been used in a wordy way – inflected for tense, for instance.
Great post! I’d love to repost this with links back at http://www.theblogbabe.com, is that okay?
Thank you, Allison. You’re welcome to post a short excerpt if you like.
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I can take it or leave it, I guess. Communication takes many forms and undergoes many transformations over generations. As a writer I don’t care for them, but I do understand their memetic worth.
this is interesting! thanks! :D i think it’s interesting to study/ go deep to how people nowadays make use/create all these ‘words without letters’! (:
[…] Words with no letters […]
I remember from my days in the restaurant biz–when we were out, that item was 86’ed. Conversely, I referred to it being 68’ed when the item was back on the menu. Plus there are all sorts of references to “what’s your 20?” and “cover your 6” from the military and police.
Kenneth: Indeed it does.
littlelittlebeanie: Thanks! I think so too.
lsurrett2: That use of “68′ed” is very interesting. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as “86’ed”, but I can see how it might become popular in the context you describe.
Very interesting. I never thought that logograms are a middle step between natural language, which isn’t compact and is overly ambiguous, and formal language, which is the goal, to replace current words with mathematical symbols. I now have a new love for logograms. :)
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[…] slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: […]