12 Letters That Didn't Make the Alphabet

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You know the alphabet. It’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters we tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed.

1. THORN

The sans serif and serif versions of the letter Thorn.
Sans serif (left) and serif (right) upper- and lowercase versions of the letter Thorn.
Eirik1231, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Have you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde whatever”? As it happens, that’s not a Y, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhark.

Thorn, which was pronounced exactly like the 'th' in its name, is actually still around today in Icelandic. We replaced it with 'th' over time—thorn fell out of use because Gothic-style scripting made the letters Y and thorn look practically identical. And, since French printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a Y.

2. WYNN

The uppercase and lowercase versions of the letter Wynn.
The uppercase and lowercase versions of the letter Wynn.
Szomjasrágó, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Another holdover from the Futhark runic alphabet, wynn was adapted to the Latin alphabet because it didn’t have a letter that quite fit the 'w' sound that was common in English. You could stick two Us (technically Vs, since Latin didn’t have U either) together, like in equus, but that wasn’t exactly right.

Over time, though, the idea of sticking two Us together actually became quite popular, enough so that they literally became stuck together and became the letter W (which, you’ll notice, is actually two Vs).

3. YOGH

The upper and lowercase versions of the letter Yogh.
The upper and lowercase versions of the letter Yogh.

Yogh stood for a sort of throaty noise that was common in Middle English words that sounded like the 'ch' in Bach or Scottish loch.

French scholars weren’t fans of our weird non-Latin letters and started replacing all instances of yogh with “gh” in their texts. When the throaty sound turned into 'f' in Modern English, the 'gh's were left behind.

4. ASH

The sans serif and serif versions of the letter Ash in both upper and lowercase.
The sans serif and serif versions of the letter Ash in both upper and lowercase.
Kagee, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You’re probably familiar with this guy from old-fashioned Greek or Roman style text, especially the kind found in churches. It’s even still used stylistically in words today, like æther and æon.

What you may not know, however, is that at one time the ae grapheme (as it’s now known) was an honorary English letter back in the days of Old English. It still had the same pronunciation and everything, it was just considered to be part of the alphabet and called æsc or ash after the ash Futhark rune, for which it was used as a substitute when transcribing into Latin letters.

5. ETH

The upper and lowercase versions of the letter eth.
The upper and lowercase versions of the letter eth.
1234qwer1234qwer4, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Eth is kind of like the little brother to thorn. Originating from Irish, it was meant to represent a slightly different pronunciation of the “th” sound, more like that in “thought” or “thing” as opposed to the one found in “this” or “them.” (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, the second is the voiced dental fricative.)

Note that, depending on your regional accent, there may not be much of a difference (or any at all) in the two pronunciations anyway, but that’s Modern English. Back in the old days, the difference was much more distinct. As such, you’d often see texts with both eth and thorn depending on the required pronunciation. Before too long, however, people just began using thorn (and later “th”) for both and so eth slowly became unnecessary.

6. AMPERSAND

Today we just use it for stylistic purposes, but the ampersand has had a long and storied history in English, and was actually frequently included as a 27th letter of the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.

In fact, it’s because of its placement in the alphabet that it gets its name. Originally, the character was simply called and or sometimes et (from the Latin word for and, which the ampersand is usually stylistically meant to resemble). However, when teaching children the alphabet, the & was often placed at the end, after Z, and recited as “and per se and,” meaning “and in and of itself” or “and standing on its own.”

So you’d have “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.” Over time, the last bit morphed into “ampersand,” and it stuck even after we quit teaching it as part of the alphabet.

7. INSULAR G

This letter (referred to as insular G or Irish G because it didn’t have a fancy, official name) is sort of the grandfather of the Middle English version of yogh. Originally an Irish letter, it was used for the previously mentioned zhyah/jhah pronunciation that was later taken up by yogh, though for a time both were used.

It also stood alongside the modern G (or Carolingian G) for many centuries, as they represented separate sounds. The Carolingian G was used for hard 'g' sounds, like growth or good, yogh was used for 'ogh' sounds, like cough or tough, and insular g was used for words like measure or vision.

As Old English transformed into Middle English, insular g was combined with yogh and, as mentioned earlier, was slowly replaced with the now-standard 'gh' by scribes, at which point insular g/yogh were no longer needed and the Carolingian G stood alone (though the insular G is still used in modern Irish).

8. “THAT”

Much like the way we have a symbol/letter for and, we also once had a similar situation with that, which was a letter thorn with a stroke at the top. It was originally just a shorthand, an amalgamation of thorn and T (so more like “tht”), but it eventually caught on and got somewhat popular in its own right (even outliving thorn itself), especially with religious institutions. There’s an excellent chance you can find this symbol somewhere around any given church to this day.

9. ETHEL

The upper and lowercase versions of the letter ethel.
The upper and lowercase versions of the letter ethel.
TAKASUGI Shinji, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Similar to Æ/ash/æsc above, the digraph for OE was once considered to be a letter as well, called ethel. It wasn’t named after someone’s dear, sweet grandmother, but the Furthark rune Odal, as œ was its equivalent in transcribing.

It was traditionally used in Latin loan words with a long E sound, such as subpœna or fœtus. Even federal was once spelled with an ethel. (Fœderal.) These days, we’ve just replaced it with a simple E.

10. TIRONIAN “OND”

Three versions of the Tironian Ont.
Jirret, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Long before there were stenographers, a Roman by the name of Marcus Tullius Tiro invented a shorthand system called Tironian notes. It was a fairly simple system that was easily expanded, so it remained in use by scribes for centuries after Tiro’s death.

One of the most useful symbols (and an ancestor to the ampersand) was the et symbol—a simple way of tossing in an “and.” It was sometimes drawn in a way that’s now a popular stylistic way of drawing the number 7. When used by English scribes, it became known as ond, and they did something very clever with it. If they wanted to say “bond,” they’d write a B and directly follow it with a Tironian ond. For a modern equivalent, it’d be like if you wanted to say your oatmeal didn’t have much flavor and you wrote that it was “bl&.”

The trend grew popular beyond scribes practicing shorthand and it became common to see it on official documents and signage, but since it realistically had a pretty limited usage and could occasionally be confusing, it eventually faded away.

11. LONG S

You may have seen this in old books or other documents. Sometimes the letter S will be replaced by a character that looks a bit like an F. This is what’s known as a “long s,” which was an early form of a lowercase S. And yet the modern lowercase S (then referred to as the “short s”) was still used according to a complicated set of rules (but most usually seen at the end of a word), which led to many words (especially plurals) using both. It was purely a stylistic lettering, and didn’t change pronunciation at all. It was also kind of silly and weird, since no other letters behaved that way, so around the beginning of the 19th century, the practice was largely abandoned and the modern lowercase S became king.

12. ENG

For this particular letter, we can actually point to its exact origin. It was invented by a scribe named Alexander Gill the Elder in the year 1619 and meant to represent a velar nasal, which is found at the end of words like king, ring, thing, etc.

Gill intended for the letter to take the place of 'ng' entirely, and while it did get used by some scribes and printers, it never really took off—the Carolingian G was pretty well-established at that time and the language was beginning to morph into Modern English, which streamlined the alphabet instead of adding more to it. Eng did manage live on in the International Phonetic Alphabet, however.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

Farther vs. Further: There’s an Easy Way to Remember the Difference, and When to Use Which

imtmphoto/iStock via Getty Images
imtmphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Even for native speakers, the English language is full of booby traps. That's why people are so hesitant to use whom instead of who, and why thinking about the differences between lay and lie is enough to give professional linguists a headache. One of the more common pitfalls is further vs. farther: Both words describe similar situations, and there's only one letter separating them. Though they're often used interchangeably, there is a difference between further and farther, and luckily for anyone who struggles with grammar, there's an easy trick to remember what it is.

Further and farther are both used in relation to progress, but the type of progress they describe differs. According to Quick and Dirty Tips, farther is reserved for physical distance, i.e. "the runner was farther down the track than his competitor," while further is used for figurative or metaphorical scenarios, such as "the senator was interrupted before she could go further in her speech."

The best way to remember this is to look at the first three letters of the words. Farther starts with far, a word that's associated with physical distance. This can remind you to use farther when describing things like car trips and walks, and save further for concepts like projects, movies, and dreams.

This distinction is clear enough, but things can get sticky when it's not totally obvious if a statement is dealing with physical or metaphorical distance. Take the sentence "the writer had gotten farther in her poem by the afternoon" as an example. If the progress being referred to is lines on a page, farther works just fine, but if the speaker is talking about the poem as a piece of art, further may be more more appropriate. In such instances, it's usually safest to default to further: Usage for farther is slightly stricter, and because further deals with situations that are already hard to define, you can get away with using it in more contexts. And if you still get them mixed up, don't let it bother you too much. Merriam-Webster notes that great writers have been using farther and further interchangeably for centuries.

[h/t Quick and Dirty Tips]

11 Untranslatable Words for Happiness From Around the World

CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images
CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images

You know that feeling you get when you listen to your favorite song? Or the feeling you get when somebody cancels a meeting? You’d probably categorize both as happiness, but they’re not exactly the same emotion. And, while there are plenty of English synonyms for happiness—such as joy, pleasure, cheer, glee, contentment—none of them really capture either feeling with much precision.

In his new book, Happiness—Found in Translation, psychologist Tim Lomas creates a road map for identifying various types of happiness, filled with words from other languages that don’t necessarily have English equivalents. In addition to expanding your mental lexicon with beautiful vocabulary, Lomas argues that learning words to describe different feelings can actually magnify the feelings themselves. “Generally, the more awareness and understanding we have of our emotional lives, the greater our well-being,” he writes.

Happiness Found in Translation by Tim Lomas book cover image
Amazon

Expand your emotional literacy with 11 of our favorite happiness terms below, complemented by illustrations from Annika Huett.

1. Shinrin-yoku (Japanese)

Happiness Found in Translation - Shinrin-yoku
Annika Huett

“Forest-bathing.”

Going for a walk in the woods can sometimes clear your mind just as well as a good meditation session. There’s no English term to capture the restorative effect of immersing yourself in nature, but the Japanese call it shinrin-yoku.

2. Charmolypi (Greek)

“Sweet, joy-making sorrow.”

The best word we have to describe how you feel while celebrating the life of a loved one who recently died or waving goodbye to your toddler on their first day of school is probably bittersweet, but that doesn’t convey the depth of that peculiar happy-sad emotion quite like charmolypi does.

3. Fjaka (Croatian)

Happiness Found in Translation - Fjaka
Annika Huett

“The sweetness of doing nothing.”

In a society that champions the ability to multitask above all else, not trying to check the next item off your to-do list can seem overindulgent or even counterproductive. But if you do manage to surrender your whole mind and body to not doing anything at all, it can feel almost euphoric. Croatians call this all-encompassing relaxation fjaka.

4. Pretoogjes (Dutch)

“Fun eyes.”

Have you ever met someone whose expression made you feel like you were in on a joke, without even knowing what the joke was? You might say they had a twinkle in their eye, which the Dutch call pretoogjes, or “fun eyes.”

5. Sólarfrí (Icelandic)

Happiness Found in Translation - Solarfri
Annika Huett

“Sun holiday.”

In Iceland, employees are sometimes granted an unexpected day off to enjoy a warm, sunny day. Though sun holidays might be uncommon in the U.S., we’re well-acquainted with the nameless joy of unexpected freedom—many people experience it when their social plans get canceled.

6. Tarab (Arabic)

Happiness Found in Translation - Tarab
Annika Huett

“Musically induced ecstasy or enchantment.”

Though the specific songs, emotional reactions, and reasons behind those reactions may vary from person to person, being moved by music is a universal experience—even babies sometimes cry when they hear certain songs. In Arabic, this sense of losing yourself in the music is called tarab.

7. Sprezzatura (Italian)

“Nonchalant effortlessness.”

Often, as in the case of a ballerina’s grand jeté or Johnny Depp’s unruly lock of hair in 1990’s Cry-Baby, seemingly effortless grace is only achieved by years of practice (or gobs of hair gel). The ability to make something look so beautifully careless through careful study is known as sprezzatura in Italy.

8. Mamihlapinatapai (Yagán)

Happiness Found in Translation - Mamihlapinatapai
Annika Huett

“A look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.”

A glance exchanged between two people who share a desire but are each hoping the other will make the first move is so full of nuance and complexity that we unsurprisingly haven’t come up with an English word to describe it. The Yagán people of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile did not have a similar issue—they named it mamihlapinatapai.

9. Etterpåklokskap (Norwegian)

“After wisdom.”

Mistakes, however dumb they may make us feel in the moment, are one of the best ways to learn and grow. Etterpåklokskap perfectly describes the grounded, enlightened feeling you get when you know exactly how to handle a situation because you’ve seen it (and screwed it up) before.

10. Engelengeduld (Dutch)

Happiness Found in Translation - Engelengeduld
Annika Huett

“Angelic patience.”

The saint-like grace with which mothers react to just about everything that their kids do, from spitting up on their new blouses to throwing tornado-level temper tantrums in supermarkets, definitely deserves a special term. The Dutch call it engelengeduld.

11. Orka (Swedish)

Happiness Found in Translation - Orka
Annika Huett

“Requisite energy for a task.”

Completing a task isn’t always just about having enough physical energy for it—you also have to care enough to actually expend that energy. You might have orka to throw a surprise birthday party for your best friend, but you might not have orka to study for a quiz that probably won’t affect your final grade.

Reprinted with permission from TarcherPerigee. Get a copy of Happiness—Lost in Translation for $13 from Amazon.

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