Thursday, November 05, 2015


I like U, even if it is a bit of an underwhelming underachiever, 21st letter of the alphabet and last true vowel (we will be dealing with "sometimes" presently). It also boasts a peculiar and unique relationship with Q, which for reasons we don't exactly understand (or maybe we do? See Q) won't leave home without it. But compare the rest of the over-muscled vowels, whose rates of usage far outpace U's: E (#1), A (#3), O (#4), I (#5), U (#13). Underachiever! No fewer than eight of the worker-bee consonants outrank it. Yet U figures prominently in what could well be the two most used words in the English language: "uh" and "um." In its short form, represented in pronunciation guides by the schwa, it could be the most frequently used of all human sounds. In terms of its shape and form, for a long time it looked like the letter V, at least if stone chiselers are to be given any credence. We know that from all the "mvsevms" and "vniversities" we still see around. You also see U in relation to radioactivity, as the symbol for both uranium and the atomic mass unit. It's another letter whose fortunes changed with the coming of mass electronic communications—aided and abetted again by the rock star Prince, who was way out in front of that stuff. Truly, I do like the use of U for "you," not least for the symmetry it represents with the egotistical I. There is something pleasingly balanced about U and I. At the same time, unfortunately, it looks illiterate to me. I don't know if I'll ever get used to it that way. U may feel differently—U might get used to it. U also figures prominently in the negating process, whose many prefixes include "un" near the head of the line. I suspect "non" may now serve the more generic role, but I remember periods when indicating the opposite of almost anything was managed by hanging an "un" out front, viz., un-American, uncola, unhappy, untoward, unfunny. Those were better days for U but it's always been just a little bit of a laggard. Its top-open curve shape is a pleasing form but the question of the tail niggles at me. It destroys the simple beauty of the curve shape yet also seems wrong without it. Even the hand-printed version of the capital. Write it out for yourself. I bet you put a tail on it, didn't U? Coming off the right side on a downstroke. It's ungainly not least because now it just looks like a mistake, the lowercase figure but too big for its size, like an adolescent enduring a growth spurt. Like most letters, U is just full of tricks. Q is not the only place where it brings the W—"quick" and "quality," yes, sure, but also consider "anguish" and "suave" (and then compare "unique" and "guard," thank you Wikipedia). Funny fellow U are—or is, I should say, to be clear. Or unclear.

1 comment: