Th* Gr*at Gadsby

by Chris Hancock

That’s right – Gadsby. It’s not a typo as you might think. And what’s with putting stars? You’ll soon find out, mark my words.

First things first. Baz Luhrmann has a film out, and you’ll find publicity about it all around you. It’s a film of a famous book, starring DiCaprio and Mulligan. You’ll probably know of its main protagonist, Jay Gatsby, who has “a quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan”. That Gatsby guy is causing my thoughts to turn to a fascinating, although not as famous, book – a book about a chap with a similar nominal styling.

That book is “Gadsby” and it first saw light of day back in 1939. I want to say who was author of it but I can’t – that is, not fully. I’ll just call him Mr Wright. What’s unusual about Mr Wright’s book is that it’s a lipogram. A lipogram is a work, usually of fiction, that won’t allow a particular glyph (I must say “glyph”, though it’s not a word that normally finds much utility). As it turns out, our author Mr Wright only had a,b,c,d,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,m,n,o,p,q,r,s,t,u,v,w,x,y and z at his disposal.


I’m imagining trying to fashion a book of 50,000 words without having that fifth (and most popular) glyph for incorporation. Tricky is how I’d put it; not straightforward – Mr Wright was a bit of a smarty-pants and his command of words must surpass that of all of us. I’m assuming you know what I’m up to by now. I can’t do it as skillfully as him and I won’t try – you must cut your coat according to your cloth.

What about showing us paragraphs from “Gadsby”, Chris? OK, I will. This is how it starts:

If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.

Not bad, is it? But that’s only 187 words. Try doing it for a mind-boggling 50,000 words – that’s what Mr Wright did. Against that, my shot at it is paltry. But a cat may look at a king, as it is said.

If you want to find out additional information about Mr Wright’s lipogrammatic magnum opus, why not put “Gadsby” into Goog… into Bing and follow any promising-looking links? And I know you can buy it in softback from Amazon.

This is hard work I must say. It’s scary to think that I might allow a taboo glyph to slip in. Usually, if anything can go wrong, it will. It took a lot of painstaking planning, for “failing to plan is planning to fail”. Still… no pain, no gain. I’m hoping it works for you – or am I a drowning man clutching at straws?

I humbly ask you to pass this on to your chums, as any publicity is good publicity. I can’t do it all as an individual; no man is an island. Also, print it out and pin it up on your walls. I don’t want it lost through “out of sight, out of mind”.

And I think that’ll do for a finish.


An online version of “Gadsby” by Ernest Vincent Wright can be found here.

A “Lipogrammatic Wordsearch” can be found here with the solution here.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


207 Responses to “Th* Gr*at Gadsby”

  1. Wow. That is hard. Bravo!

  2. Only truly wondrous authors could do this!

  3. Why ‘Gadsby’? Is it a reference/homage to Gatsby?

    • Hi Dannie! Gadsby was written after Gatsby, and I’ve seen it said that Wright did it as an optimistic antidote to Fitzgerald’s story. So I don’t think the similarity in name is a coincidence.

  4. *stands and applauds*

  5. Ooh it’s been too long since I got my fix of Chris Hancock – love that your sexy face is here alongside your clever words!

  6. While I nodded appreciatively through your article I must say I’m more excited at the thought of doing your wordsearch than reading a whole novel like that!

  7. Truly magnific*nt.

  8. I am in awe of your article! Only realised halfway through what you were up to.

  9. Guess what my Grade 10s are doing for homework?

  10. Thank you for the entertainment!

  11. Having read a few pages of Gadsby I think it’s safe to say *you’re* my favourite writer of lipograms!

  12. With so many celebrations of stupid on the internet it’s a relief to find an unashamed intellectual romp. Thank you, and props to your editor for giving you the space.

    • Well thank you, Meera! Yes, I’m lucky to have found somewhere that accommodates this geeky stuff. Fortunately there are more wordnerds out there than I ever imagined :-)

  13. I just checked, and one of my poems has no zs. I’m going to tell everyone it’s a lipogram.

  14. Mesmerising – I kept holding my breath on your behalf!

    • Thanks, Shihaan! Ernest Wright tied the E key down on his typewriter. You wouldn’t believe how many times I did a search for Es… and occasionally found them :-/

  15. This is brilliant. I am going to print it out!

  16. I wavered over replying, and besmirching your piece with ‘e’s, but I had to tell you how marvellous you are!

  17. If there was a Lipogram award, it’d be yours!

  18. You should change your bio to ‘Chris Hancock: never drops an E’.

  19. Nothing as big a turn on as a man who has a way with words!

  20. lol that picture!

  21. You are remarkable! (She remarked)

  22. Great fun! And a brilliantly challenging wordsearch!

  23. Wow, had never heard of Gadsby, liopograms, or glyphs – lucky I have Chris Hancock as my wordnerd tour guide!

  24. This is superb! It wasn’t on your list, but I emailed this to everyone :-)

  25. Does it count if I print your picture out?

  26. Do you have a great big wordnerd library with old school card catalogues just bursting with wordnerd ideas? Must do! Thanks!

  27. I held my breath all the way through but I should never have doubted!

  28. Wow wow wow. Going to stick with wow cos it has no ‘you know whats’. Wow!

  29. Why have I not seen your site before? You’re excellent!

  30. Mind. Blown.

  31. Such a fab exercise for writers! And you pass with flying colours!

  32. No half measures, eh, just straight for the kill! Brill!

  33. And here I thought a lipogram was a telegram with kisses!

  34. Best thing Ive read all day.

  35. I’m almost tempted to read it and see how it relates to Gatsby. But not quite…

    • I think it relates in that Gatsby is a rather dissolute character, so Wright made Gadsby an optimistic figure who turns round the fortunes of the town where he lives. But no, Didi, I wouldn’t recommend reading “Gadsby” just to confirm this.

  36. My wordnerd hero!

  37. Oh goodness, I had to go back and read it again once I cottoned on!

  38. Brilliant! Amazing! Xtraordinary!

  39. Incredible! And yes, the ‘e’ on my keyboard is worn bare from use!

  40. I wonder why ‘e’ is the most used? I can understand why all vowels are more common than consonants, but why ‘e’?

    • I’m afraid I don’t know why “e” should be the most common letter, Paula. It isn’t true of all languages – for example, Portuguese has more “a”s than “e”s.

  41. Fun read! Yours, that is, not convinced about Mr Wright.

  42. You, truly, are Gr*at!

  43. This site keeps getting better, and thrilling my wordnerd soul!

  44. Gosh. I am trying to comprehend a mind that goes ‘I know, I’ll write a 50k word novel without e’. Glad you shared this quirk with us!

  45. The ‘e’ on my phone was broken for a while, this made me almost nostalgic.

  46. A brilliant display of your immense talent :)

  47. So much to contermplate here. Glyph as in hieroglyphics, I suppose. ‘Lipo’?

    • Hi Nadia! A “glyph” is “an element of writing, an individual mark on a written medium that contributes to the meaning of what is written”. So a letter is one type of glyph. And “lipogrammatos” is a Greek adjective meaning “wanting a letter”. “Lip-” is “a weak stem of leipein ‘to leave, to be wanting'”. Hope that helps.

  48. I think they should rename this That Chris Hancock Site.

  49. I feel breathless, like I ran a race! That must’ve taken you weeks to craft!

  50. I’m delighted at this concept, and your masterful execution – I too feel I may not be tackling the entirety of Gadsby! But thank you for the tasty titbit, and your own skill.

  51. Blown away by your talent! You are a stunning writer.

  52. Wonderful, and ta for the wordsearch bonanza!

  53. Truly astonishing!

  54. Not surprised you’re exhausted after that! I’d say take a break, but we really want more…..

  55. Agree with others that this is a great writing exercise. I am not up to your standards though, I might start with an ‘n’ or something.

  56. I can’t get the phrase ‘gadding about’ out of my head!

  57. You are a wonder. A wordnerd wonder.

  58. Aint asterisks useful? Thanks :)

  59. I am totes printing this out! Maybe even framing it.

  60. So thrilled to have found you and this site!

  61. I think this article is testimony to your vast vocabulary! And your skillz, of course.

  62. *tries to imagine a world without es* *fails*

    • Tell me about it, Simmi 😉 You think you’ve constructed a nice sentence and then suddenly realise that one has sneaked in unnoticed. Thank heavens for being able to search text electronically :-)

  63. You are my literary idol.

  64. Every work of yours is so clever and nuanced, a true artform.

  65. I gazed at this for ages, trying to picture the effort that must have gone in to making it work. Boy does it work!

  66. I might print loads of copies and hand them out on street corners, wearing a placard saying ‘intelligence lives!’ – too much?

  67. So we can call you Mr Right?

  68. You are my literary idyll 😉

  69. Perhaps one day you should do a quick ‘how to google’ for some of your fans. Kudos on a great article, and your patience.

    • Hi Carey! Gosh, I just put searches into Google and follow the interesting sounding links. Nothing clever. As you allude, after that it’s just having patience and persistence that sometimes turns up a nice nugget for one of my articles. Thank you!

  70. One of your best wordsearches! Great challenge.

  71. This is immense: your talent, your quick mind.

  72. Ha! Wow! Had to read that a few times!

  73. Oh my! I loved this, but you could write a recipe and I’d read it with glee.

  74. New fave site! Will do my morning mental warm ups here.

  75. Didn’t click at first, but finally got it. Brilliant work, Chris Hancock.

  76. Ohhhhhhh. That’s clever!

  77. I think I’ll leave Gadsby to the hardcore, and stick with Hancock!

  78. Genuinely enjoyed that, so much so that I felt the need to join the chorus.

  79. I actually gave this a go for 300 words. Hats off to you!!

  80. The idea of an e-less world is terrifying to me! Amazing work.

  81. Oh Chris
    What bliss
    To read your lines
    No es?
    Oh please!
    Just give him time
    If it’s it wordnerdy, he’ll get it written
    And still have time to hug a kitten

  82. My kinda lipo!

  83. Chris

    I first encountered Gadsby at school, when our teacher bade us read it and write lipograms of our own. Had she had your ability with and affinity for language I might have approached the task more fondly. As it is I have resented Mr Wright all these years. But your glowing treatise has made me slightly fonder of the chap.

    • It was buried in the recesses of my mind as a curiosity only, Lucius. It took my mishearing of “Gatsby” as “Gadsby” to bring it to the surface. Thanks for the generous comment :-)

  84. Idea for someone more dedicated and patient than I: 26 chapter book, each chapter a lipogram of a different letter.

    • Ooh! That’s an idea, Carole. The closest thing I know of to this is “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn. I won’t reveal too much of the plot, but – roughly speaking – in each chapter, one more letter is forbidden than in the previous chapter. Well worth a read :-)

  85. Bookmarked, subscribed, hooked.

  86. Splendid stuff, Chris.

  87. Does the undrground take you to a parallel dimension?

  88. Cool stuff! Where else do you write?

  89. My class had so much fun with this! They love my ‘thatwordsite’ lessons best of all – as do I, because you guys do it all for me!

  90. Ha ha! That’s fair enough, Lois. I’m glad they – and you – enjoyed it :-)

  91. Rocked my world! Can you come live with me to entertain me when I’m bored? I’m bored a lot. Kthanksbye.

  92. People recommend language stuff to me, because I teach English, and it’s usually people snivelling over comma placement. But this! This is joyous!

  93. Trackbacks

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