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ONE MORNING IN THE LIMBO between sleep and the so-called real world (a time when alpha waves are said to spark), I had a curious epiphany. Which was that the letter F is distinguished by being the first letter of a great and disproportionate number of words for unpleasant objects or attributes. And, further, that there was something weak, dark and unmanly about the letter itself. My sleepy brain fumbled through my vocabulary seeking confirmation: fail, fickle, feeble, fop, frail, fetid, famine, fiasco, flimsy. . . .

Yes, there did seem to be some support for this odd insight. But now I was coming awake and my logical mind resisted the whole notion. Would you not confidently predict that each letter would have its equal share of appealing and unappealing words? What sense could there be in saying: No, F seems different from the others, it’s a weak and dark letter, somehow tainted, somehow unique. . . .

So there you have my Dionysian vision. And the Apollonian response—humbug. How to resolve the matter?

I raced out of bed (for me, walking in the morning is racing, indeed) and plunged into my dictionary of synonyms (Roget’s variety) which, unlike a dictionary, lists only everyday words. I scanned the entries commencing with F. I assigned them all with quick justice to one of three categories—those that were neither good nor bad (feel, farm, fog); those that were decisively positive (fame, favor, fortune, friend); and those that were clearly negative (failure, fatigue, fascism, fear, fiend, frivolous, flabby, flaw, foible, flightly, forfeit, fidget, fraud, feces, flatulence, felony, faded, etc.). And I tallied. And, behold, there were more than twice as many negative F-words as positive ones!

So there, as far as I was judge of the matter, my somnolent insight was substantiated. And yet, now the puzzle had truly unfolded. What was there about F which should attract this constellation of frailties, flops, and foulnesses? What is F’s dark magic? My research, admittedly of the semi-demi-scientific sort, took me to odd rooms of the library and even odder recesses of the thoughts of friends and relations.

I soon learned that F is a fairly rare letter, heading up less than half of 1% of English words. Technically, F is an unvoiced labiodental fricative. My thoughts often returned to that first feature—unvoiced—as a crucial factor. F is not said in the same complete way that a B or V is.

I recalled that a child’s first experience with F is likely to be F for False and F for Failure. But which comes first—the concept or the letter? I attended a school which used the A-E system of grades. I can still remember my confusion when F would sneak back into the picture. I asked a teacher once: “Why do we have two letters—E and F—for failure?” Obviously, F was not supposed to be used at all. It’s just that F seemed more appropriate for a bad grade than E.

And there’s Frankenstein, foul balls, the forbidding and confusing f-stops, and F-Troop, a TV series about a regiment of military fumblers. I tried—without success—to find the producer of that show to ask him: “Why F?” Why does F Troop more quickly suggest that the soldiers will be foolish and feeble-minded than C Troop or S Troop?

And there are the eight (or so) notorious Anglo-Saxon words of four letters. F initials two (25%!).

And what, I wonder, would Rimbaud, so visionary about vowels, have to say about F?

Jewish mystics, I read, have no trouble with the notion that a letter possesses a special character. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is thought to have a peculiar cosmic significance, having come into being as an emanation from God. One scholar writes: “every letter represents a whole world to the mystic who abandons himself to its contemplation.” Sad to say, there is no F in the Hebrew alphabet—sometimes the Hebrew P is our P, sometimes our Ph (or F). Even with that schizophrenia, it’s worth reporting the alchemical associations assigned to the Hebrew P: North, Jupiter, Thursday, the right nostril, and dominion/slavery. The last item is especially interesting as my interviews often elicited comments about F’s aggressiveness or, more often, weakness!

By now thoroughly fettered to F, I began accosting perfectly uninterested people with the startling assertion that I was investigating “the inner nature” of a certain letter of the alphabet.

I cautioned them not to think of words that begin with this letter but to reflect on the letter itself. Once they had absorbed this novelty, I asked: “What kind of letter is F?” After probing their initial answers, I went on to ask how they positioned F on spectrums from clean to dirty, strong to weak, and masculine to feminine? With remarkable uniformity, my dozen or so respondents perceived F as weak, dirty and (sorry) feminine. A decidedly Yin grouping. The chief exception occurred when people were visualizing a capital F, usually perceived as strong and masculine (but still weak architecturally). As you might expect, people gave different answers depending on whether they were imagining the shape of F or f. However, it’s the sound that’s the thing and the answers were far more uniform once people were asked to forget the visual and to concentrate wholly on the fff sound.

I asked some respondents to go over the alphabet in order to decide which was the weakest sounding letter? Sometimes J and K were mentioned but F always won.

I now have a file full of surprising remarks. Space being limited, I’ll simply record some of my favorites:

“A small letter. The sound is small. And aloof.” (Newspaper Publisher)

“It’s crazy, crazy. It’s a ne’er-do-well letter. It doesn’t look good. I don’t like either of the shapes. It’s like a top-heavy woman. It’s because my name begins with F that I don’t like it. . . .It’s a bad letter, independent of my name.” (Photographer)

“It’s a juicy letter because there’s spit when I make the sound.” (Writer)

“Doesn’t impress me. Not a very forceful letter. Very mediocre to me. Very bland. I just feel it’s a very limp letter. Maybe because it’s a soft, obscure sound. Hidden. It’s a hidden letter all by its teary little self.” (Secretary)

“It starts off strong but it sort of fades out...A sigh at the end...Sounds like smoke-filled rooms.” (College Student)

“Soft, fuzzy. Drifts off into a bunch of soft sounds.” (Publishing Assistant)

“It’s a sexy letter. Maybe because it’s made with lips and teeth.” (College Teacher)

“I think it’s a dark letter. When I think of it, it’s black. Friday starts with F and Friday’s black. All words that start with F are black...Not one of my most favorite letters...To the ear it’s not a pleasant sound...F is a letter that people who stutter mispronounce a lot....Maybe it’s the only letter that you have to put your teeth to your lips. Maybe this isn’t pleasant...The teeth actually leave the mouth. It’s aggressive....When you are angry, it’s sort of pleasurable to use that mouth work. It takes more mouth to say it.” (Banker, clearly thinking toward the end of “F--- you!”)

My mother, a painter, finally helped me see F’s tragic flaw. “I don’t think it’s a particularly pleasing sound,” she said, and I kept asking Why? “It doesn’t roll off your tongue,” she said. “Maybe it’s harder to say. You’ve still got the sound in your mouth.”

Ah, it was that last curious phrase that made me realize F is distinguished, at the end of its pronunciation, by a little downward hook. There is this long leaking of breath, of life, as you say the sound, and then, unlike any other letter, a final little deflation. And in so far as I have reached any answer at all from studying this miscellany of postcards from a world beyond language, it is this: that F’s special darkness derives from its soft expiration and final death. A little linguistic funeral, you might say. It’s as though, in saying the letter, you are faltering, failing and then, with a little gasp, you forfeit life altogether. So that F, more than any other letter, encapsulates the experience of failing and death and brings these fatal redolences, like hovering ghosts, to many a shadowed word.

Article 8>>>"A Metalinguistic Inquiry into F" first appeared in Verbatim, 1985 Volume 5, #1. (Verbatim, the Language Quarterly, can be found at VERBATIMMAG.COM)

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011

linguistics, metalinguistics, scholarly, research, vocabulary, unconscious, subconscious, subliminal, philosophy, deep, profound, text, analysis, English alphabet, psycholinguistics, psychology, psychiatry, semantics, language