Is the letter 'e' in danger of extinction?

The website Wired.com recently published an obituary for the letter 'e,' citing its absence from words such as Flickr and Tumblr, but linguist David Crystal says the letter isn't going anywhere.

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    David Crystal, author of 'The Story of English in 100 Words,' says the reports of the death of the letter 'e' are greatly exaggerated.
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E-mergency! "E," the most commonly used letter in the English language, is in danger. Or dangr, as Internet entrepreneurs might put it.

That's the word from Wired.com, the website of Wired Magazine. It published an  obituary the other day in honor of "E," declaring that the letter had passed away at the tender age of 2,800 years.

Never mind that we have all sorts of new-ish uses for the old stand-by like e-mail and e-commerce. As the obituary notes, the letter has lost its way amid recent online creations like Flickr, Tumblr and Blendr. "E is survived by his brothers, A, I, O and U; three daughters, é, ẻ, ě; and a son, ẹ."

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E will b missd. Or will it? Is it evn in troubl? For the final word on the matter, I contacted British linguist David Crystal, who spoke to me last year for a Monitor Q&A about his recent book "The Story of English in 100 Words."

"Absurd," Crystal declared. "The trend to omit 'e' is very limited to certain internet brand names and has no consequences for the language as a whole."

Whew. But what if "E" went by-by? We might be okay, sort of, although we'd sound pretty peculiar. That's the word – literally – from a 1939 novel called "Gadsby" that managed to unspool a story in 50,000-plus words without one use of "E."

The author, Ernest Vincent Wright, had to disable the "E" on his typewriter in order to come up with this feat of intentional lipography – leaving out a letter. He writes in the introduction  that it was especially tough to avoid certain pronouns and words ending in "-ed."

"Gadsby," which you can read here, is hardly a scintillating work of fiction. The sentences are clunky ("so a miraculous transformation of any spot at all dull was soon a fact") and often long. The story, something about the goings-on in a city called Branton Hills, is instantly forgettable. Even the main character, John Gadsby, understands that things are on the dull side: "Aw! Why is this town so slow? It's nothing but a dry twig!"

But Wright's feat still gets attention today, including a fairly extensive Wikipedia page and a mention in the Village Voice after Jay Gatsby (no relation) was described as the top character of the 20th century. A writer named Ed Park wrote: "Lipogram aficionados – folks who lash words and (alas!) brains so as to omit particular symbols – did in fact gasp, saying, 'Hold that ringing communication tool for a bit! What about J. Gadsby?'"

And it must be said that the author did accomplish something by transforming the old saying "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" into "music can calm a wild bosom."

That, at least, is d-lightful.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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