Do you like the letter C? Have any particular attachment to the letter X? How about the letter Q? Well, back in the year 1900, some people thought we’d be rid of them by now. And while they haven’t actually disappeared, the futurists of 1900 were certainly right about that whole condensing of language thing. I mean, LOL WTF BBQ, amirite?
Over at Gawker, Caity Weaver has just published a list called “Letters, Ranked” that at first glance might seem silly. But her list is actually an interesting look at how we use our modern Latin alphabet. She continues a long futurist tradition of simply asking “…and why do we need this letter again?”
The two most useless letters in Weaver’s opinion? C and Q. She’s not alone; since the late 19th and early 20th century, some people were pretty sure that those letters would be gone by the year 2000. The future was supposed to be about speed and efficiency, no use getting weighed down by worthless, redundant letters!
Back in 2007 I was digging through microfilm at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when I hit paleofuture paydirt: an article in the Ladies Home Journal called “What May Happen in the Next 100 Years,” written in the year 1900 by Elfreth Watkins Jr.
From Watkins in 1900 about the letters of 2000:
There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.
When it came to language, his article echoed what was more often predicted in the context of the telegraph. Some early telegraph designs could communicate just 20 letters, meaning that they left out C, X, and Q. But also J, U, and Z.
Weaver clearly agrees with Watkins about C and Q:
At best, “C” is a sidekick, tagging along with “H”s and “I”s to create special sounds no single letter can convey. At worst, it’s a copycat, ripping off “S”s and “K”s. It’s easy to draw, but boring to look at. It is not vertically symmetrical.
Q’s utility is crippled by its lopsided dependence on “U” in order to be seen. A cursive uppercase Q is completely indistinguishable from a fancy number 2, which is completely insane because 2 is not a letter. It is worth 10 in scrabble, where as “C” is only worth 3.
Interestingly, one of the letters that Watkins thought would be extinct by the 21st century is the one Weaver finds most versatile. The letter X.
“X” is the alphabet’s most efficient character, standing in most often for both “K” and “S.” It marks the spot. It represents the unknown (variable). One “X” is a kiss, and three is a whole lot more. It’s the letter known by people who never learned any others. It’s the only letter you need.
X as the most efficient and important letter? The futurists of yesteryear must be rolling in their graves.
Picture: Two typesetters at the Daily Express newspaper in 1947