pangrams and Dan Grahams.
That’s why I was tickled to discover pangrams.
Remember this guy? I’m hoping he’ll bring you back to your blissful days of yore, when computer time meant clicking the “Oh no!” guy on KidPix, building Geocities** websites replete with marquee banners and rainbow buttons, and playing Oregon Trail during rainy recesses.
Threadless even made a t-shirt based on the phrase. Now that’s what I call Culture.
Pangrams (or holoalphabetic sentences) use every letter of the alphabet at least once. In word processing and design, pangrams serve to display typefaces. “Quick brown fox” was introduced in the late 19th century as an exercise for students learning to write, but was later adopted for typewriters and computer.
Let’s take it one step further. A pangrammic autogram (also known as the self-enumerating autogram) describes exactly the number of letter it contains. By adding more words onto the sentence, your description of what characters makes up the sentence changes. Brace yourselves, folks, for the mind-blowing elegance of this autogram.
Only the fool would take trouble to verify that his sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen f’s, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven t’s, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens and, last but not least, a single !
If you read closely, though, the sentence lacks the letters j, q, and z. In 1984, Sallows programmed a “Pangram Machine” that generated a true self-enumerating pangram:
This Pangram contains four as, one b, two cs, one d, thirty es, six fs, five gs, seven hs, eleven is, one j, one k, two ls, two ms, eighteen ns, fifteen os, two ps, one q, five rs, twenty-seven ss, eighteen ts, two us, seven vs, eight ws, two xs, three ys, & one z.
It turns out that self-referential wordplay is not just a pastime of linguists and computer programmers. In the 1960s, some 20 years prior to Sallows’ Pangram Machine, another favorite –gram of mine had the same idea. In March 1966, Dan Graham first published Schema, now regarded as a seminal example of conceptual art. This artwork, however, more resembles a poem, with its simple lines of text running down an otherwise blank page. Even the content seems dry upon first glance: it is a list of mundane facts, this-and-this number of words, such-and-such typeface. What the list is describing, in fact, is everything on that very page.
Graham creates this self-generating structure, and structure is the operative word. Whatever Graham inputs into the structure he chose—a list describing itself—will dictate what the work looks like. He published Schema in various magazines and catalogue, and each time it is different: the text changes every time based on its new context.
Graham’s Schema and Sallows’ autograms are both textual outputs that describe the input. It’s a bit of a cycle; you can’t really separate the input from the output or the output from the input. What I love about both is that, by telling us exactly what is on the page in front of us, our attention is no longer concerned by any outside meaning. We’re not imagining brown foxes leaping over lethargic canines; we are directed to the building blocks right in front of us, from the individual letters to the amount of blank space on a page. It’s yet another cycle: Without those building blocks (the boring, the seemingly unimportant), we would be unable to construct sentences, create line breaks, format poems. After all, the structure is the conduit for meaning.
*I don’t know what an Instagram is, but folks tell me it’s because I still use a stupid phone.
**Just kidding, my heart still belongs to Angelfire. #brandloyaltly.