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Liberal linguists love to gang up on pedants who obsess about split infinitives and the death of the subjunctive. Language changes after all, and a language that fails to evolve is dead. I still remember my fury as an… Read More
This week’s blog post delves into the entertaining world of the grammagram (also gramogram), a group of letters which can be pronounced to form one or more words. Texting aficionados will be familiar with examples such as “CUL8R” (see you later) and “B4” (before), and the term “IOU” is so ubiquitous it has earned its own dictionary entry. Grammagrams are sometimes confused with straightforward abbreviations or acronyms but they involve far greater linguistic creativity, which is why they are often used to torment cryptic crossword solvers. There is pretty much endless scope for playfulness in this context, so for instance “sly looks” could correspond to “bd ii” and “bitter longing” could be answered with “NV”.
Grammagrams are a subset of rebuses, which are puzzles using both illustrations and individual letters to depict words or phrases. Wikipedia gives us a particularly beautiful example from 1865 shown at the top of this post, which reads as “May I see you home my dear”.
My own exploration of grammagrams and rebuses for this blog prompted a somewhat epic quest to track down a book containing rebus puzzles that I recollected from my childhood. My librarian parents kept most of our treasured children’s books and are usually a reliable reference source. But here they were defeated by my less than precise bibliographical recollections, which included a main character whose name possibly contained an “M” and a “P”, and a vague recollection that the rebuses might have been contained within letters or correspondence in the text. Try Googling 1970s kids’ books with that information and you are in for hours of fun (or frustration)! This was the kind of quest which had me waking up at 2am with the answer tantalisingly just beyond retrieval.
So if you ever find yourself with a similar mystery, I can recommend the excellent “looking for a children’s book” (http://www.oldchildrensbooks.com/looking-for-a-book) which finally led me to Abe Books advanced search. Further racking of my brain dug up the memory that the main character might have been called “Mary” and this finally unearthed the “Mary Plain” books in which the eponymous Mary (a bear) writes letters to her (human) friend in rebus form. A total of 14 books were published between 1930 and 1965, and some have recently been reissued by Egmont with new illustrations by Clare Vulliamy. In these latest re-issues the wonderful rebus letters are included as separate items under the book jackets.
I’ll finish with a couple of Mary Plain’s inimitable rebus-style birthday invitations (solutions at the end, if you get stuck!).
** Invitation 1: “Dear Andrew, I’m having a birthday party on Wednesday & I would be glad to see you. Mary Plain. PS Tea will be served. MP.
Invitation 2: “Dear Worship, I think you are a both one [reference to a joint invitation] so I am writing one letter. Please all come to my party & then it will be extra special. From Mary Plain. PS Next Wednesday. PSS at [indecipherable time!].
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