Jewish World Review April 25, 2002 /14 Iyar, 5762

Richard Lederer

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Consumer Reports

Abstemious words | Among the more exotic denizens of our vocabulary are words that are devoid of any of the major vowels — a, e, i, o or u. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, some call them abstemious words, a facetious label since abstemious (along with facetious) is fraught with every major vowel, and in order.

Would you believe that there are more than fifty vowelless words? Excluding abstruse words such as cwm and crwth, we'll start with one syllable specimens: by, cry, cyst(s), dry, fly, fry, glyph(s), gym(s), gyp(s), hymn(s), lymph(s), lynch, lynx, my, nymph(s), ply, pry, shy, sky, sly, spry, spy, sty, sylph(s), synch(s), thy, try, why(s) and wry.

Add two letters to cry, and you get crypt.

Add two letters to try, and you still avoid using any major vowels in tryst.

Add two letters to my, and you get myth; add three and you get myrrh.

Among two-syllable words that exclude a, e, i, o and u are gypsy, pygmy, flyby, and the adverbs dryly, shyly, slyly, spryly, and wryly. Each of these possesses two y's, but one common two-syllable word of this type includes only one y.

That word is rhythm.

One three-syllable word also avoids the major vowels: syzygy, which means "the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies. Syzygy is an especially appropriate spelling for such a heavenly three-syllable word.

A Sonnet to Vowellessness

Once did a shy but spry gypsy
Spy a pygmy, who made him feel tipsy.
Her form, like a lynx, sylph, and nymph,
Made all his dry glands feel quite lymph.

He felt so in synch with her rhythm
That he hoped she'd fly to the sky with him.
No sly myth would he try on her,
Preferring to ply her with myrrh.

When apart, we would fry and then cry,
Grow a cyst and a sty in his eye.
That's why they would tryst at the gym,
By a crypt, where he'd write awry hymn.

Her he loved to the nth degree,
Like a heavenly syzygy.

Now that you're wise to the y's, ask yourself are there any words that cavort through our dictionaries without any a, e, i, o, or u — or the minor vowels y or w?

Hmm . . . That's one that you can find in some dictionaries, including Scrabble lexicons.

Shh . . . Before you grab some s's, give me some time to think. There, you've just spotted another two, along with brr, pfft, and tsktsk.

I sincerely hope that these abstemious words have pleased you, not just to the first, fifth, or tenth degree, but (and embedded in the poem above) to the nth degree.

JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer