One of the unusual things that grammar guru Roy Peter Clark suggests in his wonderfully fun book, The Glamour of Grammar, is that the reader "adopt" a favorite letter of the alphabet. What an odd suggestion, I thought, as I read that. One adopts children, philosophies, and bad habits (just to name a few things), but letters?
I asked my wife and children if they had a favorite letter and "no" was all I got. Never thought about it. Well, maybe there was a mild insinuation that I had too much time on my hands if I needed to ask such a question. My daughter may have said "that's dumb," in her delicate way. So I dropped it. Until today, that is, when I picked the book up again. How, after all, would you begin to select a favorite letter, and what criteria would you use?
I thought about shape. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and I decided I couldn't tolerate the sharp lines of "A" or "E" or "T" or other such angular characters, as it suggested rigidity and, frankly, they seemed more masculine to me, projecting strength. I also don't like "B" and "D," as they seem overweight, bulging midriffs, not that I don't like overweight people, just the tendency I have to eat too much (and don't want to be reminded of, and these letters may be nags). While my eye is attracted to the comeliness of the feminine form, the flowing lines of "S," I decided on "Z." Why? There's something just fun about writing a "Z," as I always think of Zorro's emblazoned signature "Z" every time I write it. The flourish. The style. The wildness. I also like beginnings and endings. Being last has it's advantages. Often, you are the one remembered.
So that's it too; letters aren't just pretty faces but immediately suggest things. Quick: think of every word that begins with "Z" without the aid of a dictionary. OK, so there's Zorro (there he is again), zipper (an amazing invention, when it works, and as proper noun, a terrifying midway ride), Zoroastrian (some kind of weird religion, I think), zinc (mettalurgy, anyone?), zilch (as in "I got zilch, man," the response Sam my fellow furniture moving employee always had), zone (think "Twilight Zone" or "zoned out," like my 9th grade friend Wade), Zimmy (short for Robert Zimmerman a/k/a Bob Dylan), Zagat (is that a game??), Zach (good kid who is uncannily like Igor on Winnie the Pooh)), zinnia (planted some of these when I was a kid), zenith (the peak of something and a one time TV manufacturer), Zulu (mean African dudes), Zondervan (a book publisher), zapped (as in "Mommy, sister got zapped when she stuck her finger in the electrical outlet"), zeppelin (still a fascination of my son), zeitgeist (hmmm. . . now I need a dictionary), and. . . well, I'll stop here. This is actually fun, though, and I'm beginning to think that "Z" is really good to hang out with, as he/she (I think Z is a he, but don't ask me why) seems to have a good time.
Clark isn't the only one to suggest that letters have personality. Listen to what Alain de Botton says in The Architecture of Happiness, a book I read a couple years ago and hadn't thought about until now:
Even in something as diminutive as the letters of a typeface, we may detect well-developed personalities, about whose lives and daydreams we could without difficulty write a a short story. The straight back and alert upright bearing of a Helvetican "f" hint at a punctual, clean and optimistic protagonist, whereas his Poliphilus cousin, with a droopy head and soft features, strikes a sleepier, more sheepish and more pensive tone. The story may not end well for him.
So de Botton brings up something I had not considered: typeface. My "Z" is only one of a family of diverse Zs. I don't want to play favorites.
Now that I think about it, maybe I won't think about de Botton's book anymore. (That he writes such books must mean he is independently wealthy and can think about such things all the time.)
Oh, a Zoroastrian is a follower of Zoroaster (is that akin to a slow roaster? tiny, tiny joke - don't be offended you Zoroastrians). It is perhaps telling that the grand poo-pah of the religion's name means "whose camels are old."
This has been fun, but it's late and I need to go. What's the point of all this? I'm not sure. I guess just simply to suggest that letters are more and mean more and suggest more than what they are. And to think: I've been taking them for granted all these years, fascinated as I am by words, those suck-ups to letters.
I'm sorry "Z."