I’m a smart guy, but I must confess that I could not have come up with thirty-four definitions for the letter G. So thank goodness for Craig Conley, the ultimate man of letters. His 230-page joyride through the English alphabet reads like a Scrabble dictionary on steroids. Giving due deference to every building block of our language, Conley does for letters what James Merrill’s Body did for words. This book provides for fascinating reading from A (To not know “A from B” is to be ignorant) to Z (A hypothetical explosive, more powerful than an A or H bomb). —Dave C.,
Harvard Book Store
Anyone who thinks the letter “a” alone can mean only one thing is sorely mistaken; Conley, a linguist, editor and textbook coauthor, enumerates at least fifty ways it has been used, including as a representation of “waking consciousness” and as the classification for the lightest weight of sandpaper. Conley, who has compiled several other quirky dictionaries, became a sort of cult hero when he put an early edition of this one online, where it garnered a huge following among people surfing the web for the odd and amusing. For each letter, Conley gives dozens of meanings, which he often supports with citations from literature, science and pop culture. The definitions are arranged in groups like “shapes and sizes,” military and “people, places, things,” some of which are common to most letters and others that pertain to only one, like “exertions of power,” which has two entries under “d.” Conley’s own explanations are brief; the bulk of the book is taken up by quotations where he found a particular usage, and these come from sources as diverse as Joyce’s Ulysses, Winnie-the-Pooh and the American Medical Association. Many of the instances Conley refers to are arcane or technical, and he does a cursory job of explaining the project and justifying his methods, so some entries will leave readers baffled. (Consider “v-bob”: “a strong frame shaped like an isosceles triangle, turning on a pivot at its axis, and used as a bell crank to change the direction of a main pump rod.”) Even so, anyone fascinated by language (and especially fans of word games like Scrabble) will be thrilled with this unique resource. —Publishers Weekly
It’s fun, it’s a goof, it’s a serious work of scholarship, it’s a bar bet, it’s something to read when rain is pounding the roof. —Tony Mikasak, President of KZYX&Z FM, owner of Gallery Books in Mendocino,
If you’re a writer, editor, or just a person who enjoys finding overlooked beauty in the everyday world, this book will surprise and delight you. —Gordon Meyer, author of Smart Home Hacks
[T]he season’s trickier dictionary is “One Letter Words,” with a title that is self-explanatory. Somehow it manages to be 232 small-print pages long. A, I and O are shoo-ins, of course; otherwise, this book is helped by James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Sue “P is for Peril” Grafton and the Roman empire. It’s the right gift for anyone who has forgotten that Z was the medieval Roman numeral for 2000. —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Language fanatic Craig Conley is out ... with HarperCollins’ “One-Letter Words: A Dictionary.” There’s “I,” of course, and “a.” Plus he tells us about “C” being a vitamin, “B” denoting blood type, “X” meaning 70 things such as wrong, such as your vote on a ballot, such as where a signature’s required, such as the symbol of a kiss. —Cindy Adams, New York Post
Craig Conley treats us to the fascinating history of words. Who knew there are over 800 meanings attributed to the letters of the English alphabet? Mr. Conley breaks down the stories from A to Z. —McIntyre's Fine Books
Drawing from sources as diverse as classic works of literature, children’s books, pop culture, and academic journals, Conley presents a compilation of usages of one-letter words. At least 50 usages are expounded for the letter “a” alone. This unique reference work features both Conley’s definitions as well as quotations from the original source material. —Regulator Bookshop
Merriam-Webster, move over!
Until now, no English dictionary ever found the fun or the fascination in revealing the meanings of letters. One-Letter Words, a Dictionary illuminates the more than 1,000 surprising definitions associated with each letter in the English alphabet. For instance, Conley uncovers seventy-six distinct uses of the letter X, the most versatile, most printed letter in the English language. Using facts, figures, quotations, and etymologies, the author provides a complete and enjoyable understanding of the one-letter word.
Conley teaches us that each letter's many different meanings span multiple subjects, including science -- B denotes a blood type and also is a symbol for boron on the periodic table of elements — and history — in the Middle Ages, B was branded on a blasphemer's forehead. With the letter A, he reminds us that A is not only a bra size, but also a musical note.
One-Letter Words, a Dictionary is a rich, thought-provoking, and curious compendium of the myriad definitions attributed to each letter of the English alphabet. This book is the essential desk companion, gift, or reference volume for a vast array of readers: wordsmiths, puzzle lovers, teachers, students, librarians, and armchair linguists will all find One-Letter Words, a Dictionary a must-have.
When the Words Get in the Way
Ninety-nine down: a one letter word meaning something indefinite.
The indefinite article or — would it perhaps be the personal pronoun?
But what runs across it? Four letter word meaning something
With a bias towards its opposite, the second letter
Must be the same as the one letter word.
It is time
We left these puzzles and started to be ourselves.
And started to live, is it not?
—Louis MacNeice, Solstices
We live in a world of mass communication. As you read this, words are staring you in the face. But they’re not the only ones. Miles above you, words are fl own in jets across the country and over the oceans. They are tossed at 5 a.m. on newspaper routes. They are delivered six days a week by mail carriers. They’re propped up on display at book stores. They’re bouncing off satellites and showing up on television and cell phone screens.
We are constantly bombarded by language pollution. And these empty words are overwhelming. Either they scream out to be noticed (as in TV commercials), or they hide in small print (at the bottom of contracts), or they bury their meaning behind jargon (generated by computers and bureaucracy).
It’s enough to make you speechless.
Have you ever started to write a letter only to realize that you have nothing to report? “Dear Jan: Nothing exciting has happened here this month.” No news may be good news, but it still doesn’t amount to anything.
Sometimes you do have something to say, but “the words get in the way.” You can’t find the precise word for what you mean, and every word you can think of gives the wrong impression or is misleading.
The solution is to get back to basics. Put your trust in the ABC’s. With this dictionary of one-letter words, you have the power to fight jargon and to simplify modern communication. It’s now up to you.
The Skinny on the Dictionary of One-Letter Words
“I’ll tell you a secret — I can read words of one letter! Isn’t that grand?”
—The White Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass
Ever since I wrote the very first edition of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, I haven’t had to pay for a single drink. But I didn’t set out to create the ultimate secret weapon for winning bar bets. I mean, a dictionary is supposed to be scholarly, right? Then again, a dictionary like mine obviously doesn’t belong sitting on a dusty reference shelf next to a highbrow encyclopedia. Something this weird was bound to grow wings of its own, and it has now found itself at the center of an Internet phenomenon, the recipient of a tribute song in Sweden, the subject of radio programs, and even a prop in standup comedy routines. Why? “Y” indeed!
Upon being told about my dictionary, the average person will laugh in disbelief, then — certain that I must be joking — ask just how many one-letter words there could possibly be. Nine out of ten people will guess that there are just two: the pronoun I and the article a. The occasional smarty-pants will grant that O might make a third, as in “O Romeo!” It’s when I retort that there are 1,000 one-letter words that wagers get made — and won.
The fact of the matter is that a word is any letter or group of letters that has meaning and is used as a unit of language. So even though there are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, my research shows that they stand for 1,000 distinct units of meaning.
One-letter words are the building blocks of communication. I like to joke that learning them is easy and spelling them is even easier. But I definitely don’t sell them short.
The most important English words are small ones. And those small words — which occur most often in our speech, reading, and writing — are relatively few in number. Just ten words account for 25 percent of all the words we use, and they all have only one syllable. Fifty words account for 50 percent of all the words in our speech, and they, too, all have only one syllable.
Two of the top six words we use in speech and writing have only one letter: a and I. A is the third most frequently occurring word in the English language. I is the sixth most frequently occurring. And there are other important one-letter words, which comprise the majority of my dictionary.
One of my favorites has to be X, which boasts more than seventy definitions of its own. X marks the spot on a pirate’s map where treasure is buried. It’s a hobo symbol meaning handouts are available. X tells you where to sign your name on a contract, and it’s also an illiterate person’s signature. X indicates a choice on a voting ballot and a cross-stitch of thread. Mysterious people may be named Madame X, and the archetype of a mad scientist is Dr. X. X is an incorrect answer on a test, and it’s a rating for an adult movie. X is a power of magnification, an axis on a graph, and a female chromosome. It is a multiplication operator, a letter of the alphabet, and an arbitrary point in time. X is a kiss at the end of a love letter.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I first got the idea to write a dictionary of one-letter words. I remember once hearing about a bizarre Japanese crime novel from 1929, The Devil’s Apprentice by Shiro Hamao, and how the entire work consisted of a single letter. The single letter was obviously a written correspondence, but I initially envisioned a single letter of the alphabet. And I marveled at how bizarre indeed it would be to write a detective story that all boiled down to a solitary letter of . . .
The foregoing is excerpted from One-Letter Words, a Dictionary by Craig Conley. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
"Anyone fascinated by language (and especially fans of word games like Scrabble) will be thrilled with this unique resource."
"I'm a smart guy, but I must confess that I could not have come up with thirty-four definitions for the letter G. So thank goodness for Craig Conley, the ultimate man of letters. His 230-page joyride through the English alphabet reads like a Scrabble dictionary on steroids. Giving due deference to every building block of our language, Conley does for letters what James Merrill's Body did for words. This book provides for fascinating reading from A (To not know "A from B" is to be ignorant) to Z (A hypothetical explosive, more powerful than an A or H bomb). —Dave C., Harvard Book Store
"It's fun, it's a goof, it's a serious work of scholarship, it's a bar bet, it's something to read when rain is pounding the roof." —Tony Mikasak, President of KZYX&Z FM, owner of Gallery Books in Mendocino, CA
"Word-lovers will give an 'A' to this compilation of single-letter words from A to Z, with definitions, usage, historical background, and literary and cultural references." —Ron Berthel, Associated Press
"If you're a writer, editor, or just a person who enjoys finding overlooked beauty in the everyday world, this book will surprise and delight you." —Gordon Meyer, author of Smart Home Hacks
"Only by browsing One-Letter Words does the reader begin to appreciate the work letters do as verbal units." —Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune
"There's something strangely fun about strange dictionaries. Take, for example, The White Queen's Dictionary of One-Letter Words — with over 700 entries. 700 one-letter words? 34 entries for the 'E' word alone. Does not one almost feel an obligation to virtually thumb through its mono-lettered pages? Or, instead, take the 'Dictionary of All-Consonant Words,' and its companion volume, yes, you guessed it, the 'Dictionary of All-Vowel Words' — don't the very names somehow tickle your literary funny bone? These aren't word games, but they are resources for endless hours of word play, provided by Craig Conley's Strange and Unusual Dictionaries website." —Bernie DeKoven, author of The Well Played Game
"Read and memorise most (if not all) of the words listed in The White Queen's Dictionary of One Letter Words, Dictionary of All-Consonant Words, and Dictionary of All-Vowel Words and you'll soon be known as a Scrabble God/Goddess. Guaranteed." —Firda Beka, "Weblog Wannabe"
"Why use that everyday average dictionary that everyone else uses? Be original! Check out the Strange and Unusual Dictionaries site to use dictionaries your friends don't even know exist." —Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., University of Washington
"A humorous guide to obscure, and possibly non-existent, words. There are links here to weird and wonderful dictionaries sold via Amazon.com, but the site does produce its own contributions to the genre. You can flick through three books here, on one-letter words, all-consonant words and all-vowel words. Most of the words are just absurd ('fzzt' is, apparently, 'the sound of an android malfunctioning') and probably not to be taken too seriously. But it's highly imaginative and brilliantly researched, and we recommend buying the books as a one-volume edition. Spend hours studying them and Countdown's champion's chair surely awaits you." —Web User Magazine
"The most perverse yet serious reference manual on the web." —Doug MacClure
"Did you know you could talk using only vowels?" —BrainRub.com
"Confound your friends and amaze your enemies with your new-found Scrabble-power!" —Ambient Irony
"The examples are delightful and the dictionaries are a lot of fun to browse through (who knew that there was a difference between ooo, oooo, ooooo, oooooo, and oooOOOooo?)" —Research Buzz News
"Dictionaries are such common tools we rarely give them much thought. Anyone who is addicted to crossword puzzles or word games, however, will appreciate the 'Strange and Unusual Dictionaries' site by Craig Conley.... With over 700 entries in the one-letter dictionary alone, it's too bad there is no search engine. But the dictionaries are easily browsed by letter of the alphabet, and they are so charming you won't mind. You, too, can explore the difference between whrr and whhhrrr, the three uses of oo, and the shades of difference between ooo, oooo, ooooo and oooooo. The author includes links to almost a dozen other online dictionaries and word-play resources, as well." —Ann Koopman, JEFFLINE FORUM
"One does not often think about using words made up of one letter, but beyond A and I there are indeed quite a few. Craig Conley has put together a fine collection of them in The White Queen's Dictionary of One Letter Words. Visitors to Strange & Unusual Dictionaries will also find PSST! The Dictionary of All-Consonant Words, and AIEE! Dictionary of All-Vowel Words. The site also has a couple of recommendations for interesting and possibly useful dictionaries available for purchase at Amazon.com. A small selection of pointers to other quality sites is at the bottom of the first page and are worth a look when you are done with Strange & Unusual Dictionaries." —Edward J. Pelegrino, "Site du Jour of the Day"
"Craig Conley has assembled a fine collection of dictionaries. No, not like Merriam-Webster's or the Oxford English Dictionary. These are more the type dictionaries that you would use as resources for SCRABBLE® games, bar bets, and other trivial pursuits. There are links to other good online resources, various dictionaries available at Amazon.com as well as web and printed versions of such delights as Dictionary of All-Consonant Words or the 700+ entries in the The White Queen's Dictionary of One Letter Words." —Internet Web Guide Magazine
"Strange & Unusual Dictionaries is an incredible collection of one letter, all-vowel, and all-consonant words (and more)! Set up in book form for online browsing, find words to amaze your friends or use playing board games! Great fun!" —The Wizard's World of Unusual Choices