A lipogram (from Ancient Greek: λειπογράμματος, leipográmmatos, "leaving out a letter") is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting in writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is avoided—usually a common vowel, and frequently "E", the most common letter in the English language.
Writing a lipogram may be a trivial task for uncommon letters like "Z", "J", "Q", or "X", but it is much more difficult for common letters like "E", "T" or "A". Writing this way, the author must omit many ordinary words. Grammatically meaningful and smooth-flowing lipograms can be difficult to compose.
One of the most remarkable examples of lipogram is Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby (1939), which has over 50,000 words but not a single letter "E". Wright's self-imposed rule prohibited such common English words as "the" and "he", plurals in "-es", past tenses in "-ed", and even abbreviations like "Mr." (for "Mister") or "Bob" (for "Robert"). Yet the narration flows fairly smoothly, and the book was praised by critics for its literary merits.
Even earlier, Spanish playwright Enrique Jardiel Poncela published five short stories between 1926 and 1927, each one omitting a vowel; the best known are "El Chofer Nuevo" ("The new Driver"), without the letter "A", and "Un marido sin vocación" ("A Vocationless Husband"), without the "E".
Interest in lipograms was rekindled by Georges Perec's novel La Disparition (1969) (openly inspired by Wright's Gadsby) and its English translation A Void by Gilbert Adair. Both works are missing the letter "E", which is the most common letter in French as well as in English. A Spanish translation instead omits the letter A, the second most common letter in that language. Perec subsequently wrote Les revenentes (1972), a novel that uses no vowels except for "E". Perec was a member of Oulipo, a group of French authors who adopted a variety of constraints in their work.
After Perec's work, many other authors have taken to write under these (or even stronger) constraints. To cite some examples:
- In Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa (1974) the first chapter consists solely of words beginning with "A". Chapter two also permits words beginning with "B" and so on, until at chapter 26, Abish allows himself to use words beginning with any letter at all. For the next 25 chapters, he reverses the process.
- Gyles Brandreth re-wrote some of Shakespeare's works as lipograms: Hamlet without the letter "i" (e.g., "To be or not to be, that's the query"); Macbeth without "A" or "E"; Twelfth Night without "O" or "L"; Othello without "O".
- Fate of Nassan, an anonymous poem dating from pre-1870, where each stanza is a lipogrammatic pangram (using every letter of the alphabet except "E").
Bold Nassan quits his caravan,
A hazy mountain grot to scan;To quarry on thy Arab boy.
Climbs jaggy rocks to find his way,
Doth tax his sight, but far doth stray.
Not work of man, nor sport of child
Finds Nassan on this mazy wild;
Lax grow his joints, limbs toil in vain—
Poor wight! why didst thou quit that plain?
Vainly for succour Nassan calls;
Know, Zillah, that thy Nassan falls;
But prowling wolf and fox may joy
- In Christian Bök's novel Eunoia (2001), each chapter is restricted to a single vowel, missing four of the five vowels. For example the fourth chapter does not contain the letters "A", "E", "I" or "U". A typical sentence from this chapter is "Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth." Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel has been called univocalic.
- Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing), a book by Mike Schertzer (1998), pretends to have been written "by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance... who can find me here in this silence". The poems that follow use only the four vowels "A", "E", "I", and "O", and eleven consonants "C", "D", "F", "H", "L", "M", "N", "R", "S", "T", and "W" of this utterance.
- Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001) is described as a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable": the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel. It is not purely lipogrammatic, however, because the outlawed letters do appear in the text proper from time to time (the characters being penalized with banishment for their use) and when the plot requires a search for pangram sentences, all twenty-six letters are obviously in use. Also, late in the text, the author begins using letters serving as homophones for the omitted letters (i.e., "PH" in place of an "F", "G" in place of "C"), which some might argue is cheating.
- In December 2009, a collective of crime writers, Criminal Brief, published eight days of articles as a Christmas-themed lipogrammatic exercise.
- In June 2013, career and personal finance author Alan Corey published "The Subversive Job Search", the first non-fiction lipogram ever published. The entire book was written without the letter Z.
- In Sweden a form of lipogram was developed out of necessity at the Linköping University. Because files were shared and moved between computer platforms where the internal representation of the characters "Å", "Ä", "Ö", "å", "ä", and "ö" (all moderately common vowels) were different, the tradition to write comments in source code without using those characters emerged. Some also used this as a pastime to write texts using this restriction.
- Höpöhöpö Böks by Icelandic poet Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is a univocal lipogram using only the vowel Ö. It is composed as a tribute to Christian Bök's Eunoia.
- Eszperente is a lipogrammatic form of Hungarian in which no vowels can be used other than "E". This task is eased somewhat as "E" is a common vowel in Hungarian. In fact the letter e can denote two similar but distinct vowels. There are poems and even some books written in Eszperente, mostly for children.
- Zanzō ni Kuchibeni o (1989) by Yasutaka Tsutsui is a lipogrammatic novel in Japanese language. The first chapter is written without あ, and usable syllables are decreasing as the story advances. In the last chapter, the last syllable ん vanishes and the story is closed.
- Zero Degree (2001) by Charu Nivedita is a lipogrammatic novel in Tamil language. The entire novel is written without ஒரு (one), and there are no punctuation marks in the novel except dots. Later the novel was translated in English.
- Russian 18th-century poet Gavriil Derzhavin avoided the harsh R sound (and the letter) in his poem "The Nightingale" in order to render the bird's singing.
- Russian author Sergei Dovlatov did not use two words that start with the same letter in a single sentence, inspired by Perec's experience.
- Argentinean folk singer Leon Gieco released a novelty song in 1997 called "Ojo con los Orozco" ("Be Aware of the Orozco Brothers"); only the vowel O is featured in the song's lyrics; no other vowels are used. Its describes the personalities and proclivities of eight fictional corrupt politicians, all brothers within the same family. The rap song is in Spanish, with a heavy dose of Lunfardo, some English words, and a few pop culture references (among others, Don Johnson, Bon Scott, John Lennon and Yoko Ono are mentioned). The song's video makes heavy use of surrealistic images.
- The Pilgrim's Progress in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin (pseudonym of Lucy Aikin)
- Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin
- Lives of the Presidents Told in Words of One Syllable by Jean S. Remy
- Las vocales malditas by Óscar de la Borbolla
- A Loquacious Location of Lipograms omits the letter 'e'
- McArthur, Tom (1992). The Oxford Companion to the English Language, p.612. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214183-X
- Swain, S.; Harrison, S.; Elsner, J. (2007), Severan Culture, Cambridge, p. 5, ISBN 9780521859820.
- Andrews, Dale (2013-02-26). "Constrained Writing". Washington: SleuthSayers.
- Burton, Walt (March 25, 1937), "Fifty Thousand Words Minus", Oshkosh Daily
- Bellamy, Francis Rufus (March 1936), "Glancing Through", Fiction Parade and Golden Book Magazine 2 (5): 62
- Park, Ed (August 6, 2002), "Egadsby! Ernest Vincent Wright's Machine Dreams", The Village Voice
- Jardiel, Enrique (1948), Para Leer Mientras Sube el Ascensor
- The Book of Lists #3, p.224.
- Bombaugh, Charles C. (2013). "Gleanings for the curious from the harvest-fields of literature : Bombaugh, Charles C. (Charles Carroll), 1828-1906 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive". archive.org. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
- Lundin, Leigh; Warren, James Lincoln; Lopresti, Rob; Elliott-Upton, Deborah; Steinbock, Steve; Floyd, John (December 2009). "Christmas Contest". Lipograms. Los Angeles: Criminal Brief. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- Gieco's lyrics for the song are quoted in http://www.rock.com.ar/letras/2/2563.shtml
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