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In pursuit of the quick brown fox

Q: The New York Times has a game called Spelling Bee in which readers are given seven letters and asked to form words out of them. If you use all seven, the game calls it a “pangram.” From what I know, however, a pangram is a sentence that contains all 26 letters of the English alphabet.

A: A “pangram” is, as you say, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. The classic example is “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, eight include “pangram” and their definitions are more or less the same—a sentence (some say “a short sentence” and some add “or verse”) containing all 26 letters.

A few of the dictionaries note that a perfect or ideal pangram uses each letter only once; however, that’s not essential to the definition. At any rate, we’ve never seen a pangram of only 26 letters that doesn’t resort to using names, abbreviations, bizarre words, or the like.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, agrees with the standard dictionaries. Its “pangram” definition: “A sentence or (occasionally) verse containing every letter of the alphabet.”

As the OED explains, the word was formed of the combining elements “pan-” (all) and “-gram” (letter).  Both come from ancient Greek.

No dictionary defines a “pangram” as a word made from all the letters one is given, but perhaps the Spelling Bee game was using the word in its etymological sense, a usage we haven’t seen before.

In North American Scrabble, using all seven of your tiles in a single turn earns you a “bingo,” a term presumably borrowed from that other game. The Times Spelling Bee game also uses “bingo,” but in a different way, as explained in a glossary. It also differentiates an ordinary “pangram” from a “perfect pangram.” But never mind.

As for its history, the word “pangram” was first recorded in 1860, according to OED citations. However, there were earlier forms—the noun “pangrammatist” (1739) and the adjective “pangrammatic” (1833)—so we’ll start with those.

A “pangrammatist” is just what you would expect. The OED definition is “a writer who uses every letter of the alphabet in a single sentence, line of verse, etc.; a composer of pangrams.”

As the dictionary says, “pangrammatist” was “a borrowing from Greek” with the addition of the English sufffix “-ist,” and was modeled after the 17th-century noun “anagrammatist” (for a writer of anagrams).

The earliest use cited is from “A Dissertation on the Life and Writings of Tryphiodorus,” an introductory essay in a translation of an epic poem by the Greek writer about the fall of Troy:

“There is yet another style of Writers which … may not improperly be called Pangrammatists. … It was not sufficient for them that their Poems consisted of the proper feet and measure, unless all the letters of the Alphabet were crowded into every single line of them.” (The Destruction of Troy, James Merrick’s 1739 translation of a work from the third or fourth century.)

The adjective form, “pangrammatic,” was next to come along. The word describes “a sentence, verse, etc.,” Oxford says, “that contains every letter of the alphabet.” Here’s the earliest use:

“Gessner gives half-a-dozen Pangrammatic lines, in Greek Hexameters and Jambics, at the beginning of his edition of ‘Heraclidis Allegoriæ Homericæ’ ” (The Christian Examiner and Church of Ireland Magazine, May 1833).

The noun “pangram” followed a few decades later. The plural forms are “pangrams” and (less commonly) “pangrammata.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from a collection of literary oddities, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature (1860), by Charles Carroll Bombaugh.

In the book, Bombaugh includes a chapter titled “Alphabetical Whims: Lipogrammata and Pangrammata,” giving this as an example of the latter: “John P. Brady, give me a black walnut box of quite a small size.”

The word in its usual plural form appears in this OED example from a British magazine: “The family of Grams is large. There are epigrams, anagrams, chronograms, monograms, lipograms, pangrams, and paragrams” (The Galaxy, June 1873).

And since we brought them up, here are definitions of those words and their earliest known dates: “epigram” (before 1552), a witty saying; “anagram” (1589), a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another; “chronogram” (1623), a sentence or phrase in which certain letters, when capitalized, express a date in Roman numerals; “monogram” (1696), a design formed with letters; “lipogram” (1711), a composition that avoids using a certain letter; “paragram” (1711 or earlier), a sort of pun in which a letter or group of letters is altered to suggest another word.

We’ll conclude with a final OED citation for the word “pangram.” It appeared on July 23, 2001, in a Publishers Weekly review of Mark Dunn’s wordplay novel Ella Minnow Pea:

“It’s about a family living on an island that is also home to the original author of the pangram ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.’ ”

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