November 27, 2020

Word of the Month - Pangram

        Here’s a piece I finished at the beginning of the month, representing the most famous pangram in the English language: The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.  This is a small piece, and really just a mild amusement.  However, in the planning of it I got sucked down the rabbit hole of which dog breeds are the laziest, and also the rabbit hole of pangrams in other languages.  A pangram is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, with as few repetitions as possible.  A perfect pangram would have no repetitions at all, which really isn’t possible in English (unless you cheat with abbreviations or other non-words), but languages that write with syllabaries have it much easier in this regard.  They have more elements to work with, and don’t have to worry about the constant need for additional vowels.  I learned that Japanese has some amazing pangrams, including a famous poem that has been used as the equivalent of alphabetical order!
        Back in English, the quick brown fox is first mentioned in The Boston Journal in 1885, but the context (“A favorite copy set by writing teachers for their pupils”) implies that the sentence was already well known, at least in typing-teacher circles.  In addition to typing and shorthand practice, the jump of the brown fox and lazy dog were the first message sent to test the Moscow-Washington hotline between the USA and USSR governments in 1963, they show up in cryptography tests, and they are widely used to display fonts.  Although the fox and dog are the most famous pangram, they are, at 33 letters, not the shortest.  In my opinion, the best one with only 28 letters (the shortest English has without cheating) is Waltz, bad nymph, for quick jigs vex.  I am also particularly pleased by the 29-letter Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.
        If you like this sort of thing, I highly recommend the book Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, which is a very cleverly written fable about authoritarianism, in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned, and the characters have to speak and write in ever more convoluted ways to avoid the forbidden letters.  It centers on the supposed divinity of the fictional inventor of the famous pangram, although they use the version The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, which has 35 letters.  While a pangram uses all the letters of the alphabet, writing in which one or more letters is purposely omitted, as in Dunn’s novel, is called a lipogram.
        As for my illustration of the momentous leap forever immortalized in the English language, it simply struck me as a fun little block to carve and print.  It’s been hard to feel very ambitious in this ninth month of everything-cancelled, but I am very grateful to be able to make the occasional small piece that cheers me up.

[Picture: Pangram, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020.]


Pax said...

Did the "Z" get left off of the mineral in the pangram "Sphinx of black quart, judge my vow.
Pangrams are a fun game, and I didn't know about Mark Dunn's book, so thanks for mentioning it.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yeah, I've added the z, thanks!