ABECEDARIUM: Any situation, relatively brief, in which all the letters of a phonetic alphabet
occur at least once. For the English alphabet, this situation would specify a sentence, a phrase,
or a paragraph/verse in which all 26 letters are present.
My exposure to this topic came in the late 1970s when I was teaching a college
credit course in calligraphy. One of my first educationist chores was to find alphabetical
phrases (= abecedaria) for homework exercises. That was when I also became aware of the paucity of
this challenging application of prose.
In the United States the most well known abecedarian is the moralistic, schoolroom
favorite, The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The author of this popular phrase is not
known, but it was in common use as an exercise phrase in handwriting manuals of the late 19th
century. Equally unknown is the author of what is perhaps the second most utilized abecedarian
sentence: Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. Needless to say, this robust but scallywag
sentiment does not appear in any elementary school books. It was and still is the standard phrase
used by the printing industry in their catalogs to display different lettering styles of type.
Some scholars-who claim that the author of both of these succinct, endurable abecedaria
must have been Lewis Carroll-point to the not so well known abecedarium, Cloxy dugadies brumpf and
jovik in the fowzest. Only Carroll, they argue, would have had the talent and the nerve to compose
such a nonsensical but properly syntactical set of words.
Other scholars have scoffed at these Carrollites and have insisted that this phrase clearly shows
the rhythmic touch of Edward Lear. Both parties, then, use tenuous ties to suggest that their
champion was the author of the two classical abecedaria.
Occasionally, a keenly exotic abecedarium flows from the pen of historical poets, perhaps
inadvertently so. Such might have been the situation in Spenser's Fairie Queene. That revered
classic is a lengthy tome of 12 books; I admit to a diligent reading (so far) of only Books I
and II, which contain 905 verses. Therein I have found one and only one verse that achieves
And proud Lucifera men did her call,
That made herselfe Queene, and crownd to be;
Yet rightfull kindome she had none at all,
Ne heritaje of native soverain tie;
But did usurpe with wrong and tyrannie
Upon the scepter, which she now did hold:
Ne ruld her realme with lawes, but pollicie,
And strong advizement of six wisards old,
That within their counsels bad her kingdome did uphold.
After finding an abecedarium in Spenser, I was curious about whether there are any abecedaria in
Shakespeare. Perhaps there are. Possibly within his plays there are abecedaria not yet discovered
by Avonial scholars. What can be reported is that none of many sonnets qualifies as an abecedarium.
The main obstacle inhibiting the easy creation of abecedaria is generated by only two letters, the
J and the Q. Consider the letter Q. After the author has discarded commoners such as quill, quick,
quiet, quaff, and requiem, there simply aren't many Q words left from which an appropriate selection
can be made. Note that in the following epigram (composed as a calligraphic exercise for my students)
I applied a poetic spelling of "sumac" in order to have a Q present:
Majestic groves of sumaque employ the autumn breeze
To counteract the wild attack of rude obnoxious fleas.
Consider the letter J. Were it not for the quaint spelling of the word "heritage," not a single
one of Spenser's 905 verses would qualify as an abecedarium. For my calligraphy students, I solved
the J problem by composing The Gourmet's Tail, a fitting epigram to toast the epicurean holiday.
Thanksgiving Day casts a cozy meal,
Exigently so I've heard,
When piquant sapajou stuffing
Is strictly for the bird.
*James R. Nolan, PhD, is a professor emeritus of biology and art at the State University of
New York - Plattsburgh. Before his career in academe, he was a lettering designer for many
years at BBD&O in New York City. He lives in Plattsburgh, NY, with his wife, Marta, where he
continues to pursue the art of calligraphy and the exploration of the English language.|
This article originally appeared in the Faculty Forum, Volume XII, Number 1, 1985, of the State
University of New York, Plattsburgh, and was revised May 2005. ©1985, 2005 by James R. Nolan and
reprinted here with permission.