One-Letter Words, a Dictionary

One-Letter Words, a Dictionary

by Craig Conley

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Merriam-Webster, move over!

Until now, no English dictionary ever found the fun or the fascination in revealing the meanings of letters. One-Letter Words, a Dictionary illuminates the more than 1,000 surprising definitions associated with each letter in the English alphabet. For instance, Conley uncovers seventy-six distinct uses of the letter X, the most versatile, most printed letter in the English language. Using facts, figures, quotations, and etymologies, the author provides a complete and enjoyable understanding of the one-letter word.

Conley teaches us that each letter's many different meanings span multiple subjects, including science—B denotes a blood type and also is a symbol for boron on the periodic table of elements—and history—in the Middle Ages, B was branded on a blasphemer's forehead. With the letter A, he reminds us that A is not only a bra size, but also a musical note.

One-Letter Words, a Dictionary is a rich, thought-provoking, and curious compendium of the myriad definitions attributed to each letter of the English alphabet. This book is the essential desk companion, gift, or reference volume for a vast array of readers: wordsmiths, puzzle lovers, teachers, students, librarians, and armchair linguists will all find One-Letter Words, a Dictionary a must-have.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061751325
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Craig Conley is an established teacher and author with a long history of writing for schools and public libraries. He is currently a consulting editor for McGraw-Hill and Globe Fearon publishers. For nine years he was an instructor of composition, literature, and study skills at universities and community colleges in Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida. His articles have appeared in magazines such as Verbatim, Mothering, Mnemosyne Journal, American Cage-Bird, and Home Education. Conley holds a B.S. in mass communications and an M.A. in English from Middle Tennessee State University.

Read an Excerpt

One-Letter Words, a Dictionary

By Craig Conley

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Craig Conley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060798734


When the Words Get in the Way

Ninety-nine down: a one letter word meaning something indefinite.
The indefinite article or -- would it perhaps be the personal pronoun?
But what runs across it? Four letter word meaning something
With a bias towards its opposite, the second letter
Must be the same as the one letter word.
It is time
We left these puzzles and started to be ourselves.
And started to live, is it not?

-- Louis MacNeice, Solstices

We live in a world of mass communication. As you read this, words are staring you in the face. But they're not the only ones. Miles above you, words are fl own in jets across the country and over the oceans. They are tossed at 5 a.m. on newspaper routes. They are delivered six days a week by mail carriers. They're propped up on display at book stores. They're bouncing off satellites and showing up on television and cell phone screens.

We are constantly bombarded by language pollution. And these empty words are overwhelming. Either they scream out to be noticed (as in TV commercials), or they hide in small print (at the bottom of contracts), or they bury their meaning behind jargon (generated by computers and bureaucracy).

It's enough to make you speechless.

Have you ever started to write a letter only to realize that you have nothing to report? "Dear Jan: Nothing exciting has happened here this month." No news may be good news, but it still doesn't amount to anything.

Sometimes you do have something to say, but "the words get in the way." You can't find the precise word for what you mean, and every word you can think of gives the wrong impression or is misleading.

The solution is to get back to basics. Put your trust in the ABC's. With this dictionary of one-letter words, you have the power to fight jargon and to simplify modern communication. It's now up to you.

The Skinny on the Dictionary of One-Letter Words

"I'll tell you a secret -- I can read words of one letter! Isn't that grand?"
-- The White Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass

Ever since I wrote the very first edition of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, I haven't had to pay for a single drink. But I didn't set out to create the ultimate secret weapon for winning bar bets. I mean, a dictionary is supposed to be scholarly, right? Then again, a dictionary like mine obviously doesn't belong sitting on a dusty reference shelf next to a highbrow encyclopedia. Something this weird was bound to grow wings of its own, and it has now found itself at the center of an Internet phenomenon, the recipient of a tribute song in Sweden, the subject of radio programs, and even a prop in standup comedy routines. Why? "Y" indeed!

Upon being told about my dictionary, the average person will laugh in disbelief, then -- certain that I must be joking -- ask just how many one-letter words there could possibly be. Nine out of ten people will guess that there are just two: the pronoun I and the article a. The occasional smarty-pants will grant that O might make a third, as in "O Romeo!" It's when I retort that there are 1,000 one-letter words that wagers get made -- and won.

The fact of the matter is that a word is any letter or group of letters that has meaning and is used as a unit of language. So even though there are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, my research shows that they stand for 1,000 distinct units of meaning.

One-letter words are the building blocks of communication. I like to joke that learning them is easy and spelling them is even easier. But I definitely don't sell them short.

The most important English words are small ones. And those small words -- which occur most often in our speech, reading, and writing -- are relatively few in number. Just ten words account for 25 percent of all the words we use, and they all have only one syllable. Fifty words account for 50 percent of all the words in our speech, and they, too, all have only one syllable.

Two of the top six words we use in speech and writing have only one letter: a and I. A is the third most frequently occurring word in the English language. I is the sixth most frequently occurring. And there are other important one-letter words, which comprise the majority of my dictionary.

One of my favorites has to be X, which boasts more than seventy definitions of its own. X marks the spot on a pirate's map where treasure is buried. It's a hobo symbol meaning handouts are available. X tells you where to sign your name on a contract, and it's also an illiterate person's signature. X indicates a choice on a voting ballot and a cross-stitch of thread. Mysterious people may be named Madame X, and the archetype of a mad scientist is Dr. X. X is an incorrect answer on a test, and it's a rating for an adult movie. X is a power of magnification, an axis on a graph, and a female chromosome. It is a multiplication operator, a letter of the alphabet, and an arbitrary point in time. X is a kiss at the end of a love letter.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I first got the idea to write a dictionary of one-letter words. I remember once hearing about a bizarre Japanese crime novel from 1929, The Devil's Apprentice by Shiro Hamao, and how the entire work consisted of a single letter. The single letter was obviously a written correspondence, but I initially envisioned a single letter of the alphabet. And I marveled at how bizarre indeed it would be to write a detective story that all boiled down to a solitary letter of . . .


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