04/03/2014  •  677 words

There are 26 letters in the English language, and we need every single one of them. Want proof? Choose a letter and write a blog post without using it. (Feeling really brave? Make it a vowel!)

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” I loved this little sentence when I first heard it. I loved the neatness of such a short sentence containing every letter of the alphabet, while containing two nouns on a similar theme. The coherence of it means that despite its relative length (35 characters) it is the best-known and most-loved pangram.

There are others. Several constructions use every one of the 26 letters only once each, although you would need the memory of a Scrabble genius to make head or tail of them. There is barely a commonly-known word among the half dozen or so of these ‘perfect’ pangrams. The slightly longer constructions that can be understood without a dictionary are much-loved by designers. Pangrams show the characters of a typeface in a few short words, making it quick and easy to get a feel for how the letters will look in print or on screen. They are sample text at its best: meaningful words but no more of them than strictly necessary.

So-called ‘perfect’ pangrams are indeed sublimely short, but it’s surprising how few extra characters you need in order to have a meaningful sentence. I guess it’s like the rice on the chessboard, where every additional character you have at your disposal extends the options available to you many times over. (I imagine, too, that to extend the number of tiles available to Scrabble players to eight would make for significantly higher scores. Come to think of it, that must be a coursework project syllabus somewhere. Anyway, I digress.)

So by re-using just nine of the 26 letters, you get a charming, descriptive short story about a fox and a dog. And it is a short story: several of the shortest pangrams are narratives that would make for excellent first lines to books, enticing readers to continue reading. Why does the fox jump? What happens when it lands? Why is the dog such a layabout?

Other pangrams suggest even more intriguing narratives to follow. “Glib jocks quiz nymph to vex dwarf” could be a newspaper headline. Why the jocks are glib is anyone’s guess and it’s not immediately clear why questioning an ancient demi-god would annoy the vertically challenged, but until I have answers I’m going to keep reading.

Some are descriptive. “Bright vixens jump; dozy fowl quack” measures in at just 29 characters long, a third as many repeated characters as its better-known fox-related cousin. I like this one because the comma is a perfect fulcrum, with its two phrases equally balanced on either side of it. They say the same kind of thing in the same way, both about animals and their actions.

You can also get some social commentary from pangrams, both for the purposes of wit and of evil. “Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes” is a wry comment on something that seems to be missing where one might expect it. “Foxy diva Jennifer Lopez wasn’t baking my quiche” is self-contradictory if one assumes that baking one’s quiche is in some way euphemistic. “Thieving Jews quickly formed big prize tax” is racist.

I think it’s the economy of the language that draws me to pangrams. They are a kind of game where less is more, with just enough rules to make things interesting and the vast expanse of the English language with which to exercise the remaining freedom. If I ever get into typography in a big way, I would want some stock pangrams to use in my artwork. If I ever got into writing short stories in a big way, I would want to start them with the most gripping pangrams I could muster and build the narratives around the premises contained within them. Because I really do want to know why that dwarf was so vexed.

My jawdropping paradox: I’ve lazily used every character for a quick blog post.