Let's Reminisce: The importance of one-letter words
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 13, 2020
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I never gave much thought to one-letter words until I discovered they have their own dictionary.  I bought a copy of the dictionary and read in its preface the claim that despite there being only 26 letters in the English alphabet, they represent more than 1,000 units of meaning.

One-letter words are important building blocks of communication.  Learning them is easy and so is spelling them, but you shouldn’t underestimate their value.  Many of the most important English words are small, and these little words are relatively few in number.  But they occur very often in our speech, writing, and reading.  A mere ten words account for 25 percent of all the words we use, and all of them have only one syllable.  Fifty words account for 50 percent of all the words in our speech, and they also have only one syllable.


Furthermore, two of the top six words we use in speech and writing have only a single letter: a and I.  A is the third most frequently occurring word in the English language.  I is the sixth most common.


One of our favorites is X, which claims more than seventy definitions on its own.  X marks the spot where treasure is buried on a pirate’s map.  It’s a hobo symbol meaning handouts are available.  X tells you where to sign your name on a contract or will, and it’s also an illiterate person’s signature.  X indicates a choice on a ballot, and a mysterious person may be named Madame X.  It also marks an incorrect answer on a test, and is the rating for an adult movie.  This list could go on for quite a while, but I’ll stop with the designation of a kiss at the end of a love letter.


Craig Conley, the author of the dictionary of one-letter words, confesses that he wrote the first entry in his dictionary in a fit of procrastination while a graduate student spending many hours a day in the library working on his thesis.  He was intrigued by all the enormous dictionaries on the shelves, and on a whim he started looking up entries for the 26 letters of the alphabet.  He jotted down a variety of tidbits, and those notes became the basis for his dictionary.


For example, remember the expression, “Mind your p’s and q’s” as a comment on behavior.  As a English teacher I am familiar with Hawthorne’s story entitled “The Scarlet Letter,” about a woman condemned to wear an A (for the crime of adultery) embroidered on her breast.  Here’s his description in the first chapter: “On the breast of her gown, in red cloth, surrounded with elaborate embroidery and flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”


The letter Q has a special meaning in the field of Biblical criticism, when it refers to material common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that is not derived from the Gospel of Mark.  R is used in the expression “the three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic).”  It also designates a movie rating prohibiting attendance by anyone under seventeen not accompanied by a parent or guardian.


In school the letter S is used as a grade rating a student’s performance as satisfactory.  T can be used to describe a way of doing something perfectly: “We could manage this matter to a T.”  T-bone refers to a thick loin steak containing a T-shaped bone.  Until 1827, convicted thieves in England were often branded on the thumb with a T. 


The term U-boat referred to a military submarine.  V stands for the Roman numeral for five; with a line over it, it signifies five thousand.  Z is almost universally recognized as a symbol for sleep, as in “It’s going to be a long night’s vigil, so if you want to catch some z’s work it out with your buddies.”


Clearly, one-letter words are numerous and important enough to deserve their own dictionary.  You’ll find Craig Connelly’s One-letter Words, A Dictionary on sale at Amazon.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: