The Letter E
By Allan Haley
As any Scrabble player will tell you, ‘e’ has always been an important letter in our alphabet, used more often than any other. In the Internet age, however, ‘e’ has achieved near-ubiquitous popularity, since it can be tacked on at will on to almost any other word to imply the white heat of the technological revolution. Terms like e-business, e-zine, e-cash, e-text and e-book are now part of the daily language of many of us.
The forerunner of these compounds is the comparatively venerable e-mail, first recorded as a noun in 1982 and as a verb in 1987. At first, the e- was just a convenient abbreviation for electronic. E-mail gained wider currency from the early nineties onwards, but many new users of the term were uncertain whether the initial letter was an abbreviation or a prefix, and whether the word should be written with a hyphen or not. Hence the alternative forms E-mail, Email, and email.
Where It All Began
Flash back five millenia to Ancient Egypt. Several experts believe that the fifth letter of our alphabet – or, rather, some of the sounds it represents – were once indicated by the Egyptian hieroglyph for a house or courtyard. Two thousand years later the hieroglyph evolved into the Phoenician letter called “hé,” which represented, roughly, the sound of our ‘h.’
When the Greeks adopted the Phoenician writing system, they had difficulty using about half of the Phoenician letters; most of these troublesome characters were modified to bring them into sync with the Greek language. Some were altered only slightly, others drastically. A couple were dropped altogether.
The Phoenician ‘hé’ was one of the problem characters. The Greeks could not pronounce the first sound of the letter name. Being pragmatic people, and living in less complicated times, their solution was simply to drop the part of the name that was causing the difficulty. As a result, the Phoenician ‘hé’ became ‘e’ – and thus, our most useful vowel was born.
A Final Modification
Over time, the Greeks gradually simplified the design of the Phoenician character, and flopped it so that its arms were pointed to the right. The end result looked remarkably like the ‘E’ found in typefaces like Arial or ITC Avant Garde Gothic. The final version was given the name epsilon and represented a short ‘e’ sound (as in bed).
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.