This post is funnier than you’re expecting.
I’ve done plenty of writing about words on this website. Time to break things down to the more granular level of letters. Specifically, we will dive into the least-used letters in the English alphabet. Will our society survive without them? Or are we going to crumble back into the dark ages?
Then maybe, one day, I’ll break things down to the individual shapes within the letters. “Letters with at least one straight vertical line are 3.7x more popular than letters with one to two curves.”
Word Geek in Action
A kindred spirit named Peter Norvig analyzed Google Books to compile a veritable smorgasbord of statistics on the frequency of words and letters in the English language.
He wound up analyzing 743.8 billion words using 3.56 trillion letters, you know, just in case someone might dare to throw up the “small sample size” alert at only 3.4 trillion letters.
He broke down his results into several different charts, but the one I’m focusing on today is the overall frequency of letters. That means it’s every usage of each letter, regardless of its position in a word.
Unsurprisingly — especially for anyone who’s watched Wheel of Fortune — E is the most frequently used letter. Approximately one out of every eight letters is an E.
11 Least-Used Letters in the English alphabet
For this post, I’m looking at the other end of the scale. Here are the 11 least-used letters in English, three or maybe four of which are decently surprising.
1 | Z, ~1/1111 letters used
Apparently, Dr. Seuss’ books weren’t included in the study. That guy is Z ca-razy. Like Michael Scott pulling out an imaginary gun in every improv scene, Dr. Seuss busts out a made-up word featuring two to 17 Zs at every possible opportunity.
But I think if given a chance, he would want to appeal to this research and summon the zoo-escapee creature, Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz, that plays jazz on the zither, and loves to eat Zizzer Zoof seeds.
2 | Q, ~1/833
For what it’s worth, Norvig found that Q can exist without U. While QU is the most common pairing with Q, at least one book included a word that paired Q virtually every other letter. There are only six exceptions; no book has a word containing JQ, QG, QK, QY, QZ or WQ.
3 | J, ~1/625
J is the only letter that doesn’t appear on the periodic table. Ooh, someone should figure out how frequently letters appear on the periodic table and then compare that to the frequency in other words.
I would do it myself, but I’m quite busy. With… I don’t know… let’s say work, learning swing dancing, and Jai Alai.
4 | X, ~1/435
X doesn’t have the credit it deserves. I mean, a word would crumble if this letter is removed in the mix, but the same word stays relevant if another letter is taken out instead of “x”. Talk about an x-istential crisis.
Like many people, you’d think X might be higher, and it might be if this were only taking into account how frequently each letter starts a word.
There are precious few words that start with X. It’s why all of my son’s alphabet books have to use cheats, like “eXtinct” for A-Z animals. Or “xylophone” in basically every other situation, regardless of how apropos it is. (“I mean, I guess a book of America From A-Z could include xylophone. People here… um… play them sometimes?”).
5 | K, ~1/185
K is also another word that is unfairly treated with its competition with the letter “C.” K is K but C is K and S at the same time. No wonder K is at the top 5 because it’s always double-krossed, err, I mean, -crossed.
Moreover, I guess the study didn’t look at too many comedy books. Everyone knows K is the funniest letter.
6 | V, ~1/95
V really gets a boost from all the usage of “I’ve.” Never doubt the power of drafting off people’s — especially writers’ — egocentrism. It’s their victory.
It was Vivacious Vladimir’s vast vocabulary and verbosity that helped him achieve victory as he vigorously expounded upon the virtues of the verdant valleys and violet vistas he had visited during his vacation in the vast Valencian countryside. Phew!
7 | B, ~1/68
My first surprise of the list. I expect to see more of the letters from the end of the alphabet on this list. They’re the bad kids sitting in the back of the bus, throwing paper airplanes or doing whatever the bad kids do today.
Meth? Probably meth. But seeing B, the second letter of the alphabet, in this ignoble spot? Blasphemy.
Or maybe Math! Start counting from one to infinity and note what number you’ll start seeing the letter “B”. In the billion perhaps?
8 | Y, ~1/60
Y is my half surprise. This letter can be used both as a vowel and a consonant. It is pronounced as “e” in some words like “merry” and “happy”. Or, it represents a “y” sound when used on some words like “year” and “yolk.”
So, like the letter C which has both the powers of “K” and “S”, Y should be on the top 15 or something. Unfortunately, Y is one of the least-used letters in the English alphabet.
Perhaps if the study were more skewed toward current (not, as I assume, primarily older, public domain) works, modern AdverbMania would’ve given Y the boost it so clearly, undisputedly deserves.
9 | W, ~1/60
If I were to anthropomorphize letters, W would sit around all day bitter at U, bitching about how it’s literally bringing twice as much to the table but getting a fraction of the usage. This is because W is double u or “uu” before it merged to what we know today. And it assumed on replacing the current “u.”
That’s the attitude I assume Boutros Boutros-Ghali had whenever he was around someone whose name was only one Boutros. Hes probably thinking he’s “more boutros” than the other guy. Wow. This paragraph on W really went off the rails.
10 | G, ~1/53
I’ll call G my second surprise. I mean, it’s worth two points in Scrabble. That’s lower than four letters that aren’t on this bottom 11 list (C, M, F, H) and tied with D, which also isn’t on this list. If we can’t trust scrabble, who can we trust?
Plus G has two pronunciations- gem and good. And every “-ing” word has a G, but it still only landed here? Won’t somebody think of the gerunds?
11 | P, ~1/47
For the final surprise, I wouldn’t have guessed P would be in the bottom half of letter usage. This 11th least-used letter in the alphabet doesn’t pack with a punch except to those who doesn’t like it.
Although on that note, here’s a random “Everyone Hates P” trivia fact: Believe it or not, there are only three U.S. state names that contain the letter P. I’d tell you which ones, but that’s no fun.