Sunday, May 19, 2013

The letter L deserves some Love

Every now and then, somebody comes up with a poll for the most beautiful word in the English language. This is as gloriously pointless an exercise as I can imagine, but pointless fun is under-rated even in this post-Protestant-work-ethic world.
Joanne Whalley gives Michael Gambon the Spanish Archer

Last time I bothered to read such a survey, the surprising answer was 'elbow'. A fine rock band to be sure - and they got the idea from Dennis Potter's Singing Detective - but a curious choice for the best word in English. It's even slang for ending a relationship (also known as the Spanish Archer: El Bow - get it?). Still, it contains the unsung star of this post: the letter L. 

Not since the Muppet Show has the letter L got the praise it deserves. It's surely the most derided letter in English, at least since Shakespeare wrote "thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter".

Old King Cola
I know what you're asking yourself: why is L more derided than H, U or Q? The answer lies in psychology. Remember the Pepsi challenge? (Or is it the Coke challenge? I can never remember. Regular readers of this blog already know that I only drink Rioja.) In truth, I can't remember the brand so let's just call it Coksi.

In a blind tasting, members of the public were asked to choose between cola L and cola M. They preferred cola M, and they preferred it in sufficiently large numbers to justify a major marketing campaign. The marketers weren't surprised: not because they knew their product was best but because they'd rigged the survey in a way that Derren Brown would appreciate.

This was demonstrated when someone else did exactly the same experiment but with the labels switched. People rejected Coksi in almost exactly the same numbers that they had preferred it in Coksi's own experiment. Why? Because they didn't prefer Coksi to any other cola: they preferred any letter to the letter L

Subconsciously, L is the most visually unappealing letter in the alphabet. Not only is it one of the least symmetrical, it has a yawning void in the middle. It lacks substance. It lacks anything you can grab hold of. The Coksi challenge wouldn't work in any country that didn't use the Roman alphabet.

But aurally, L is a lovely letter. The delicate flick of tongue against the teeth suggests all sorts of things. Kissing is the act of two people saying the word 'love' into each other's mouths: making the letter L with someone else's teeth. 

The letter L does some wonderful things when it follows a strong consonant: it softens and creates a sense of comfort. Look at these words:
That combination of short vowel, strong consonant and an L positively radiates comfort, security and warmth. Even the word 'Nurdle', which describes a carefully placed shot in cricket or a small blob of toothpaste, suggests delicacy and care (I don't advise you to click on that second link). 'Elbow' is good, but there's nothing quite like the consonant-L combination to make a lovely word.

Oddly, lengthening the vowel dispels the effect, leaving you with something seedy like 'sidle' or 'ogle', or Google, which as we all know is now the archetype of corporate evil.

Moral: Cuddle an L today. You'll be a better person for it.

1 comment:

  1. Also, L is the only letter that could prop your books up on a shelf.