The Story of E

Proposals to gradually phase out this vowel from the alphabet might be premature.


Historically speaking, few letters of the alphabet have come in for the kind of nonstop drubbing “e” has taken of late. In the mad rush to distance themselves from the failed new economy, practically every corporation, magazine, and consultancy has taken the chisel to anything that has the letter e on it. This sudden, rampant discontent is not confined to the business world, either. For instance, the Treasury Department is said to be conducting print runs to determine the potential cost savings from ratcheting down to pluribus unum. In addition, executors of the estate of e e cummings have been noticeably cranky of late.

At the risk of sounding cranky myself, I think it’s time everybody switched to decaf. I mean, it’s not e’s fault that it happens to be the first letter in the word electronic. And consider, for a moment, what the world would be like with one less vowel. The impact on assonance alone is inestimable.

Some linguists have proposed counterbalancing the loss of e by removing a consonant from the alphabet, or by combining l, m, n, o, p into one letter, as it says in that song. This leaves me cold. So does a new proposal from a branding think-tank (supply your own jokes). In what it terms a “win, lose, then win again” scenario, the Marketing Association of America has suggested filling in the open side of the letter e. Under such a plan, e as we know it would be gradually phased out, to be replaced by a fully enclosed letter, called e2. The upper half of the oval would then be auctioned off to corporate sponsors.

Critics scoff at the MAA’s suggestion, labeling it a boondoggie for advertisers (they meant boondoggle). One obvious concern: possible confusion between the new e and the old o. Indeed, several semiotics scholars have argued that any redesign of e must include a flattening of the oval, along with a thickening of the cross line. While such a proposal would greatly reduce e/o confusion — good news for peep show operators — it misses the point. The plain truth is, there’s nothing wrong with e that a little time can’t cure.

I mean, really. Maybe we should just get rid of all the vowels and see how people like that. The Phoenicians employed an alphabet of all consonants, and see how that worked out? Name the last three Phoenicians you met in a steam room. Name one.

This is in no way intended as a slight to the Phoenicians. While scholars still debate where the concept of an alphabet originated, most trace the roots of the letter e to this ancient seafaring race who lived in northern Africa. According to Professor Nahan’s classic treatise, the Phoenicians were particularly adept at shipbuilding and maritime skills. He also surmises that their version of e — later vowel-ified by the Greeks — was most likely a textual representation of the storm god known in some circles as Haddu. Later, Haddu was called Baal. Baal’s son was also called Baal. Apparently this saved on cuff links.

Interestingly, linguists at Columbia University have written at length about the uncanny resemblance between the Phoenician e and the e of the ancient Mayan civilization. As North Africa and Central America are separated by an ocean, the linguists say they’re hard-pressed for an explanation of this phenomenon. (For a clue, see Professor Nahan’s eight chapters on the advanced boat-building techniques of the Phoenicians.)

If you’re still fence-sitting, here’s one last thought in defense of e. While the fifth letter is most usually thought about in connection with language, it’s also played a pivotal role in the history of science. The symbol e, for instance, is a crucial part of Einstein’s famous equation e=mc squared, where e represents energy and mc represents some other stuff. In addition, e is one of the more significant alphanumeric expressions in mathematics. The concept, first proposed by Leonhard Euler in 1727, concerns the theoretical posit that “the rate of change of any exponential function is proportional to the function itself.” In case you’re interested, mathematicians have calculated the value of e to 2.718281828459045235386…Three would have been close enough for me.

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