Thursday, October 22, 2015


S is for serpent, which it looks like and which it sounds like. But don't hold that against it. It has nothing to do with sin other than fronting for the word. It doesn't actually want you to eat an apple. It's far too busy demonstrating the Calvinist work ethic as one of the busiest letters in the alphabet—#7 most frequently used, which somewhat belies its rather lowly position as the 19th of 26 letters. Consider its many duties. Perhaps it's best known as The Pluralizer, converting one noun to many nouns by the simple expedient of showing up, sometimes, for the ladies and the laddies, with helper letter E and doubling consonants as needed. With S, there's always room for more. A friend becomes friends, a cat becomes cats. Put S at the end of many verbs and they are activated, moving forcefully into the eternal present. You already know you can run, eat, learn, but runs, eats, learns is for when you are actually doing it, a pinpoint focus on pure activity. For the most part, S maintains its integrity, but as with so many letters in this English alphabet it is occasionally lured from the straight and narrow. It is essentially a sibilant, a subtle sound made with the tongue at the back of the upper teeth, and a sharp exhalation. It is a remarkably penetrating noise as anyone can tell you who has sat in a darkened theater with people randomly hissing about things they don't like. Pair S with H, however, and the sibilance is still there but now caused by the jaw mostly closing the mouth against the exhalation to please be quiet please, another sound sadly heard too often in theaters nowadays, along with its cause, people randomly having conversations—plural. S is so pleased with itself about this land grab with H that it also molests the letter U at will for the same effect, as in "sugar" and "sure." This does not occur without surcease, which makes it annoying. It's small potatoes, of course, compared to the gyrations of some other letters we could name. Otherwise, S struggles for a personality. Inevitably it is a computer programming language. Someday each letter of the alphabet will have its own programming language and mergers will be allowed only if they spell words found in the Scrabble dictionary. One thing you can say about S is that it certainly has a lovely sinuous shape, printed or cursive, and damn the serpentine association. Just as there is no I in team there is no S in evil (though here its blunt force strength as The Pluralizer unfortunately works against it). Ultimately, that very fungibility of S saves it. It is so perfectly utilitarian. You can add it to the end of maybe 75% of the words in the English language and arrive at something with a perfectly new and useful meaning. S does have the unfortunate propensity of so many consonants to pair off with itself: pass, lassitude, gross, mission ... wait, what was that noise my mouth just made? Oh crafty S with your many ways!

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