Text: Solveig Hansen, 2015 / Photo: iStock.com/OlafSpeier
When letters in a pangram start falling off a memorial plaque, the letters are banned, with harsh punishments for those who use the forbidden characters. This is the plot in Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Written in 2001, the story is a commentary on issues like censorship and freedom of speech. It is also a fable for lovers of words.
First, some facts and history: A pangram is a sentence that contains all the letters of a given alphabet, at least once. A perfect pangram uses each letter only once. The opposite of a pangram is called a lipogram, in which one or more letters are omitted. Today, pangrams are typically used to display samples of typefaces on computer screens.
The best known English pangram is The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, first used at the end of the 19th century as writing practice. Later, it was used to test typewriters and teleprintes.
Another 19th century pangram is Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs, made well known by Mark Dunn in his novel Ella Minnow Pea, in which the search for a shorter pangram is part of the plot.
Ella Minnow Pea
In the novel, the pangram The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog is credited to Nevin Nollop, a fictitious inhabitant of the equally fictitious island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina. The pangram is written on tiles on his memorial statue. When the letter tiles start falling off, the island’s high council bans the use of the fallen letters from all communication, written and spoken, and enforces a penalty system for using them. Neighbors are encouraged to spy on neighbors and report violations to the council.
The story is conveyed through mails and notes sent between various characters, and as the alphabet diminishes, the letters disappear from the novel. When the first letter, z, falls off, the heroine of the novel, Ella Minnow Pea, explains:
“To speak or write any word containing the letter Z, or to be found in possession of any written communication containing this letter, one will receive for a first offense a public oral reprimand… Second offenders will be offered choice between the corporal pain of body-flogging and the public humiliation of headstock upon the public square. For third offense, violators will be banished from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of Council will result in death.”
Then the letter q falls off and is outlawed. Ella writes:
“As luck would have it, there are simply not all that many words in the English language which claim this letter among its constituents.”
However, even the removal of the two least-used letters has its repercussions: the loss of radio and newspaper and recordings of music with lyrics.
When d falls, the days of the weeks are renamed:
In the end, only five letters remain, LMNOP (= Ella Minnow Pea, get it?). “Now onlee 5 remain at 12 o’time. Onlee 5. Onlee 5 remain,” Ella writes to herself in her penultimate letter.
The solution to restore their language and topple Nollop from his godlike stature, is to find a pangram of 32 letters, in contrast to Nollop’s 35. Ella discovers this phrase in one of her father’s letters: Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. Read the rest of the book for yourself.