Do you ♥ words with no letters?

August 23, 2011

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:

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