“April – River Road” by John Getchell
You may have noticed in the following series of signs that the content of my messages had grown more verbose. This had the delightful consequence of further slowing traffic on River Road, with some travelers coming to a full stop, their mouths sounding out the syllables as the traffic backed up behind them.
There was a good reason for this. Up until this point, I had found that some messages needed to be annotated to fit the requisite confines of sign space and available letters. This can be an intriguing challenge, as the four lines on the face of the sign can only accommodate 100 characters at best. Some bits of thought, quotations, and aphorisms are too lengthy for this format, so part of the challenge of being a sign editor is to distill the essence of a thought without sacrificing elements of wordplay and meaning. I imagine that Gutenberg and his Protean team of typesetters faced similar vexations; annotate a Biblical passage, or schlep out to the woodshop to carve yet another ‘P’ or ‘Q’?
The package of letters that came with the sign was parsimonious at best – only 150 characters – representing all 26 letters of the English alphabet, but with some letters better represented than others.
Lots of vowels overall, but never enough “E’s. Only two or three of the less popular letters, ‘C’, ‘F, and ‘X’, for example. This made it difficult to wax poetic about coffee and sex. I got around the ‘E’ problem by carefully altering a couple of ‘F’s with a sharpie, but that created an ‘F’ shortage. I wanted to post this haiku about coffee:
COFFE OH COFFEECOFFEE, COFFE, MY COFFEE MY BITTER LOVER
There were not enough letters, and there still aren’t.
So throw your QUIRTY keyboard out the window. I learned the typesetter’s lesson the hard way. Amongst the vowels, ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘I’, and ‘O’ were best represented, with six each in the package. (The letter ‘U’ did less well, with a count of only four. (Poor little ‘ol ‘U’!) The winners in the consonant count were the letters ‘R’, ‘S’ and ‘T’, also with six apiece. These were the most adequately represented characters.
The rest of the consonants did less well and were represented as follows: B, C, D, F, and H, receiving four apiece. G, M, W, and Y received three, and the letters, J, K, Q, V, X, and Z came in last, with a paltry two representatives apiece.
I began to suspect that this runic popularity contest had been rigged by malevolent forces, the result of backroom deals and shadowy compromises, so I did a little investigating. I decided that the best way to determine which letters are genuinely the most in demand is to measure the size of the individual letter drawers in a typesetter’s cabinet! The bigger the drawer, the more numerous the letters contained therein.
I then made a fact-finding call to the local weekly, The Arundel Tattler. My inquiries regarding the size of their typesetter’s drawers were met first with a suspicious silence, and then with a surprising display of incredulity:
“Are you for real?”, the receptionist asked.
“I assure you, madam, this inquiry is quite sincere!”
“Look, Mister, we have work to do around here. We don’t take kindly to questions about anyone’s underwear.” And with this, she hung up on me.
After several more attempts to call I was connected to a taciturn manager to whom I managed to adequately explain the nature of, and the reason for my inquiry.
“So you’re the nut on River Road with the sign in your front yard?” he asked. “I take umbrage at that characterization sir, but yes, I am the curator and editor of The Sign of the Apocalypse!”
“I thought it was a new church for a while,” he confided. “Love your work. My family talks about it at the dinner table almost every night!”
Then in a rather patronizing tone, he explained that “typesetters” for newspapers, magazines, and other forms of print no longer used physical “type”, and that “letterpress printing” was an anachronistic memory in the publishing world.
“Yes, buddy. Even Bibles. We use computers now.”
The word “computer” spoken slowly, each syllable enunciated, apparently for my benefit. “Ever think about getting a girlfriend?” he asked.
So at least I can take comfort that I am a later day practitioner of an ancient, esoteric art. Subsequent investigation indicated that the sign company was either up to something shady or had simply gotten it all wrong.
The most commonly used letters in the English language, in order of popularity, are: IN FIRST PLACE: E!, followed by: ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘I’ ‘O’, ‘T’, ‘N’ ‘S’, L’, C’, ‘U, ‘D’, ‘P’, ‘M’, ‘H’, ‘G’, ‘B’, ‘F’, ‘Y’, ‘W’ ‘K’, ‘V’, ‘X’, ‘J’, and in last place, and least popular of the letters, the ugly duckling, Q’! (who is in quiet collusion with ‘U’.)
I’ll spare you the details of my exhaustive investigations regarding punctuation. I will simply confide that of the 14 most popular punctuation marks and numbers, the sign came adequately equipped, with four notable exceptions: 0 umlauts, 0 parentheses, 0 semi-colons (I conceded that most people should not be entrusted with those), 0 QUESTION MARKS.
The absence of question marks presented a true editorial vexation. This last straw found me on the phone with a nice lady at the sign company.
“Hi! My name is Red Sqwirl! I’m calling from Arundel, Maine. I’m the curator of “The Sign of the Apocalypse”. There was a pregnant pause, and then, “I beg your pardon, dear?”
I sallied forth: “I am the proprietor and proud owner of one of one of your internally illuminated, portable marquees! I find that I have a deficit of certain letters and marks of punctuation. Pray tell, why is your offering of letters and punctuation so parsimonious?”
There was another pause and then, “Dear, do you need more letters?”
“Additional letters come in the Pilgrim Pack of 50 letters, the Redeemer Pack of 150 letters, and the Trinity Pack’of 300 letters.”
I did a quick calculus and settled on the Redeemer Pack.
“Will that be all?” asked nice sign lady.
“Oh, one more thing! I need question marks for, well you know, questions. May I purchase one or two?”
“Sweetheart, I’ll throw a couple in for free!”
Score another win for SOTA!