Sunday, February 23, 2020


By Mary Davis

Did you know there was a 27th letter of the alphabet? It was still in use as recently as the 19th century.

The American alphabet hasn’t always been the 26 letters we know today. It has morphed and changed over the centuries.

So what was unfortunate letter number 27?


That stylize squiggly thing that means “and.”

“Hold on, Mary. Isn’t that a symbol?”

Not originally. It was a letter. But aren’t all letters really just symbols; something that represents something else?

So let’s go back to the “ampersand.” The end of the alphabet song would have gone like this . . . w, x, y, z, and per se and. This last bit after the “z” slurred together to become ampersand. The “ampersand” fell out of use and off the end of the alphabet. I have always liked it. I guess I didn’t realize most people didn’t use it. New life has been breathed into this wonderful little character with things like Twitter which limit the number of characters one can use. One character instead of three.

So what other beloved—or not so beloved—letters have we lost over time?

Let’s start with the “long s” which isn’t the same as a long vowel. It looks like this, sort of a funky "f":

Person or Persons Unknown [CC BY-SA

One might think is was in place of the lowercase “s”. Nope, we had that too. It was called the “short s”

The “long s” is a complicated fellow. It was used when a word had one “s”, but it was also used when a word had two s’s together. It came first followed by the “short s.” But only if that “s” is at the beginning or the middle of the word.


No wonder it fell out of use, and it was mostly stylistic anyway and faded away around the beginning of the 19th century.

Moving on . . .

“Thorn” is a much easier letter to understand, which looks a lot like the letter “P.”

Eirik1231 [Public domain]

“Thorn” represented “th.”

You know those signs that say Ye Olde <something> Shoppe?

It’s actually not “Ye” at all but “Thee.” German and Italian printers didn’t have the “Thorn” character, so they substituted the closest thing they could find—Y. Even I can see that a “Y” doesn’t much resemble the P-looking “Thorn.” But in an older script it does.

Public Domain

I see the resemblance now.

An off-shoot of “Thorn” is “That.” Yep, we had a letter “That.” Apparently “that” was written so often it needed its own letter. That letter was “Thorn” with an extra line near the top.

Person or Persons Unknown / CC BY-SA

So this was actually “tht” for that. Hmm…

“That” caught on fairly quickly and outlived its parent “Thorn.”

Next up—“Ash”.

You might have seen this little guy. It’s an “a” and “e” smushed together.

You might have seen it in words like æther and æon

If you hold down your “a” key, a box will pop up and give you the “Ash” letter as an alternative for “a”. It’s supposed to be the sound somewhere between “a” and “e”. Whatever that is. No surprise that it fell out of use.

And moving on to “Ethel.” No, not your Aunt Ethel. Like “Ash” it is two letters smushed together. This time “o” and “e” and has to do with pronunciation.

It was used in words like subpœna or fœtus.

You can also press the “o” key and get the box with “Ethel” as a choice. “Ash” and “Ethel” are still in use in some dialects.

The letter “Yogh” is next up on our list of extinct letters.

Person or Persons Unknown [CC BY-SA

“Mary, why are you showing us a three?”

It’s not. It’s “Yogh.”

Poor little guy didn’t stand a chance with the numeral 3 hanging around. “Is that a three or a ‘Yogh’?” I think it was doomed from the start.

It’s the “ch” sound you hear in Bach or Scottish loch. “Yogh” got replaced with “gh” and, apparently feeling guilty over ousting “Yogh”, it became silent in most words like though and daughter.

Next is “Wynn.”

Szomjasrágó at Hungarian Wikipedia [CC0]

“Wynn” was a much needed letter (unlike some of the others) but it confused people. Latin didn’t use the “W” sound so didn’t have need for a letter to represent it. Many shoved two “u’s” together. It was cumbersome and time consuming to write, so the letter “Wynn” was created. It didn’t really take off and fell out of use before it gained any popularity. And as you can guess the “uu” became “w”, and where our modern letter gets its name from.

Last but not least, “Eng.”

Person or Persons Unknown / CC BY-SA

In 1619, Alexander Gill the Elder created this letter to take the place of “ng”. This was a great theory. But alas, people chose not to use it, and it, too, fell out of use before it even became popular.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of extinct letters, but it’s enough.

I love learning stuff like this. 

What letter do you wish would make a comeback? Any favorites?

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“Bygones” Texas, 1884
Drawn to the new orphan boy in town, Tilly Rockford soon became the unfortunate victim of a lot of Orion Dunbar’s mischievous deeds in school. Can Tilly figure out how to truly forgive the one who made her childhood unbearable? Can this deviant orphan-train boy turned man make up for the misdeeds of his youth and win Tilly’s heart before another man steals her away?

MARY DAVIS is a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over three dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her recent titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides CollectionThe PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS SeriesThe Widow’s Plight, “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides CollectionThe Daughter's Predicament, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. Shes an ACFW member and critique groups. Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-four years and two cats. She has three adult children and two adorable grandchildren. Find her online:


  1. What a fun post! I knew about the long and short "s" but not the other letters. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome! It was fun learning about these letters.

  2. Oh my gosh! I'm all confused now. This was fun but I'm glad these things are extinct, can you imagine learning the alphabet with those added? Worse than spelling!!!!

    1. They do get confusing. But if we started out learning the alphabet with these letters in there, they would be no different than the one we already know. With or without these strange letters, I struggle with spelling.
      I wonder where each of them would have fallen in the alphabet?

  3. A fun read! I actually use quite a few of those in my historical fiction, since many are still used in Scandinavian dialects/languages. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you for sharing your interesting post!

  5. Thanks for your research and sharing!

  6. I've read about ampersand before Mary, but I never realized that the funny letter in colonial documents that looked like an f was actually a long s! It's interesting that some of these letters actually stood for whole words! I think the "thorn" letter makes sense because it's a sound instead of having to use "th" all the time. That one might have made spelling easier. I do like to use the ampersand symbol on occasion. What a great, informative post, Mary.

    1. If you like "thorn", then let me introduce you to "eth". "Eth" is "thorn's " fraternal twin. It looks like a "D", either capital or lowercase, with a line through the straight part. It, also, represented "th". It all has to do with how a word was pronounced. "Thorn" was a voiced dental fricative, like in this or them, and "eth" was a voiceless dental fricative, like in thought or thing. But depending on where you lived and how you pronounce these words would determine whether you used a "thorn" or an "eth." So the same word could have different spellings. I left "eth" off my list because it fell out of use because people favored just using "thorn". And I figured there were enough confusing letters. But I found that having two different letters for the two different sound interesting and not a bad idea.

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