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.

40 Words That Start With X

arthobbit/iStock via Getty Images
arthobbit/iStock via Getty Images

When the lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson put together his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there weren't a lot of words that started with X; he even included a disclaimer at the bottom of page 2308 that read, “X is a letter which though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.” Noah Webster went one better when he published his Compendious Dictionary in 1806 that included a single X-word, xebec, defined as “a small three-masted vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.” Although, by the time he compiled his landmark American Dictionary in 1828, that total had risen to 13.

X has never been a common initial letter in English, and even with today’s enormous vocabulary you can still only expect around 0.02 percent of the words in a dictionary to be listed under it. But why not try boosting your vocabulary with these 40 words that start with X.

1. X

On its own, the letter X is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb meaning “to cross out a single letter of type.” X. X. in Victorian slang meant “double-excellent,” while X. X. X. described anything that was “treble excellent.”

2. XANTHIPPE

Xanthippe was the name of Socrates’ wife, who, thanks to a number of Ancient Greek caricatures, had a reputation for henpecking, overbearing behavior. Consequently her name can be used as a byword for any ill-tempered or cantankerous woman or wife—as used in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

3. XANTHOCOMIC

Explosion of yellow powder against a white background
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Xanthos was the Ancient Greek word for yellow, and as such is the root of a number of mainly scientific words referring to yellow-colored things. So, if you’re xanthocomic, you have yellow hair; if you’re xanthocroic you have fair hair and pale skin; and if you’re xanthodontous, you have yellow teeth.

4. X-CATCHER

In old naval slang, an X-catcher or X-chaser was someone who was good at math—literally someone good at working out the value of x.

5. X-DIVISION

Victorian slang for criminals or pickpockets, or people who make a living by some underhand means.

6. X-DOUBLE-MINUS

Young boy with a terrified expression on his face
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1960s slang for something really, really terrible.

7. XENAGOGUE

Derived from the same root as xenophobia, a xenagogue is someone whose job it is to conduct strangers or to act as a guide while…

8. XENAGOGY

… a xenagogy is a guidebook.

9. XENIAL

A young man fist bumps his musician friend
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The adjective xenial is used to describe a friendly relationship between two parties, in particular between a hospitable host and his or her guests, or diplomatically between two countries.

10. XENIATROPHOBIA

Don’t like going to see doctors you don’t know? Then you’re xeniatrophobic.

11. XENIUM

A xenium is a gift or offering given to a stranger, which in its native Ancient Greece would once have been a lavish feast or a refreshing spread of food and fruit. In the 19th century art world, however, xenium came to refer to a still-life painting depicting something like a extravagant display of food or a bowl of fruit.

12. XENIZATION

A young woman traveling with her camera and backpack
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A 19th century word meaning “the act of traveling as a stranger.”

13. XENOCRACY

A government formed by foreigners or outsiders is a xenocracy. A member of one is a xenocrat.

14. XENODOCHEIONOLOGY

Defined as “the lore of hotels and inns” by Merriam-Webster.

15. XENODOCHIUM

A young woman uses her cellphone at a hostel in India
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A guesthouse or hostel, or any similar stopping place for travelers or pilgrims.

16. XENODOCHY

A 17th century word for hospitality. If you’re xenodochial then you like to entertain strangers.

17. XENOGLOSSY

The ability to speak a language that you’ve apparently never learnt.

18. XENOLOGY

An illustration of an alien waving at the camera
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The scientific study of extraterrestrial phenomena is xenology. The study of extraterrestrial life forms is xenobiology.

19. XENOMANIA

The opposite of xenophobia is xenomania or xenophilia, namely an intense enthusiasm or fondness for anything or anyone foreign.

20. XENOMORPH

Something unusually or irregularly shaped is a xenomorph—which is why it’s become another name for the eponymous creature in the Alien film franchise.

21. XENOTRANSPLANTATION

Surgeons operating on a patient
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Transplanting organic matter from a non-human into a human (like a pig’s heart valve into a human heart) is called xenotransplantation. Whatever it is that’s transplanted is called the xenograft.

22. XERIC

An ecological term used to describe anywhere extremely dry or arid. If it’s xerothermic, then it’s both dry and hot.

23. XERISCAPE

If you live in a xeric area, then you’ll have to xeriscape your garden. It’s the deliberate use of plants that need relatively little moisture or irrigation to landscape an arid location.

24. XEROCHILIA

Woman applies lip balm while outside during the winter
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The medical name for having dry lips. Having a dry mouth is xerostomia.

25. XEROCOPY

A xerographic copy of a document—or, to put it another way, a photocopy.

26. XEROPHAGY

The eating of dry food is xerophagy. It mightn’t sound like it, but it was originally a religious term.

27. XESTURGY

The proper name for the process of polishing.

28. XILINOUS

A pile of soft cotton against a white background
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Something described as xilinous resembles or feels like cotton …

29. XIPHOID

… while something described as xiphoid resembles a sword.

30. XOANON

Derived from the Greek for “carve” or “scrape,” a xoanon is a carved idol of a deity.

31. XTAL

Large double quartz crystal against a white background
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An abbreviation of “crystal,” according to the OED.

32. XYLOGRAPHER

A 19th century word for a wood engraver.

33. XYLOID

Why say that something is “woody” when you can say that it’s xyloid?

34. XYLOPOLIST

Pile of wood logs ready for sale
Javier Díez/iStock via Getty Images

A 17th century formal name for a timber merchant.

35. XYLOTOMOUS

Describes anything or anyone particularly good at wood-cutting or wood-boring.

36. XYRESIC

Means “razor-sharp.”

37. XYROPHOBIA

A pile of razor blades
Comstock Images/iStock via Getty Images

The fear of being close to or touching sharp implements.

38. XYLANTHRAX

Nowhere near as nasty as it sounds, this is just an old name for what we now call charcoal.

39. XYSTUS

A type of covered walkway or portico.

40. X.Y.Z.

Late 19th century slang for a journalist who takes on any work going, or else 18th century slang for a dandyish or “exquisite” young man.

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