The Great Vowel Grift

Advertising Today had the honor of sitting down with Jeremiah Carp at Achy Shtetl, a rest home for the aged and vocal in upstate New York. Readers familiar with the history of typography will remember the “Great Vowel Grift” of 1948, also known as “Pay-e-i-o-u-la.” Jeremiah Carp is the man whose career—unimpeachable to that point—was ruined by the scandal.

AT: Mr. Carp, first: Thank you for speaking with Advertising Today.

JC: Feh. Advertising today is ineffectual rubbish, and I can’t even see most of it, thank God. [Mr. Carp has been blind since birth.—AT] So ask me a question already.

AT: Of course. Why don’t you take us through the thinking at the time that led to your being asked to invent, and pretend to have discovered, a new vowel, for use by your... patrons?

JC: You call that a question? I’ve passed loose stool more coherent than that question.

My “patrons,” as you call them, didn’t ask me to invent anything, other than evidence. They thought up the vowel. My... assignment was to fabricate the proof of its prior existence.

AT: And for what reason?

JC: Because all of the other vowels were in use, had been used up, or were useless, like an alterkocker’s shmekl. Listen:

It was three years after the end of World War II—you know what that was, don’t you? Things were looking up all over, but in America especially times were good. For most people, anyway. Most people had money to spend. And in any event it was the people with money that the people in advertising were interested in. The goal, as always, was to get the moneyed people’s money. It’s not a complicated system.

After the war, it was back to basics. The ad men first put the emphasis on the classics—the A-frame house, the A-line dress—sturdy, hardworking, uncomplicated mainstays that gave the people comfort. But the war had been ended with the A-Bomb, you might have read, so there was a push to move to a new letter.

Rather than go to B, though, they went to E, which brought connotations of e-lectricity, which had been the last thing, before atomic implosion, to revolutionize the world. So we were sold new e-quipment of every shape and size and color, or so I heard. Everything imaginable was re-branded with an e-prefix, or “e-fix”—restaurants with actual cooks were replaced by “e-teries” with automated carousels; iceboxes were chucked in favor of “e-frigerators”; even charities, which don’t plug into an outlet, jumped on the bandwagon and became “e-leemosynary institutions.”

AT: As if A was Adam, the first man, and E—newer, sleeker, sexier—was Eve.

JC: It was not at all like that.

At any rate, soon enough the bloom was off that rose as well, and we moved as a country, like a bull with a ring in its nose, on to I. The appeal of the i- opener was that it personalized things. It made the consumer feel an intimate personal connection with each i-tem. Of course, the most famous of these was the iRon, which—ironically, you might say—was an electrical version of a steam-powered contrivance. But we still use it today. At least I hope we do. I hope you didn’t come out to interview me with a wrinkled shirt on, son. Have some respect for yourself, if not for me.

O was a non-starter. It made everything sound like a prayer or a plea. And U did just the opposite of I—it made the u-ser feel lazy and demanding. So the marketers needed a new gimmick. They needed a new vowel. Problem was, there are only five, and they’d blown through them all in record time.

AT: Not to belabor the obvious, but what about Y?

JC: Are you simple? Y would have been even worse than U, boy! Starting a product name with a discrete Y would have had consumers asking, literally, why they should bother. Y could never have been used. No, the industry needed an all-new, all-purpose vowel. But it couldn’t just be invented, or it would have no cachet. It had to have existed. It had to be unearthed, discovered. It had to have a pedigree. And so it had to be found by an authority.

AT: And that’s where you came in?

JC: Am I not telling my story with enough commercial breaks for your magazine’s seven readers? Yes, that’s where I came in. I was an assistant professor at Vandeventer College at the time, and up for tenure. My specialty was cryptoetymology, which probably means nothing to you. It’s the study of hidden word meanings, but also hidden words themselves and, by extension, letters, as well.

AT: Can you give an example of a hidden word?

JC: Well, they’re all hidden to me, being that I’m blind! But seriously: No. Let’s try to stay focused here, shall we?

Two men from one of the larger ad agencies—both of them dead now, though the agency survives—came to see me at my office to discuss their idea. It was a conspiracy, make no mistake, only they didn’t make it clear to me at the time that my contribution was going to be presented to the public as factual. They gave me the impression that the introduction of a lost vowel was going to be tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I had this impression firmly in mind when I was writing up the phony phonology of the letter, which I said could only be pronounced properly by placing one’s tongue in one’s cheek.

The ad men did give me complete freedom to fabricate the recent history of the letter. They originally wanted to call it etic and claim it was from Old Greek, but I reminded these two goyim that sympathy was high for us Jews just then, and a more yiddishe foundling with a more hamische nomen would probably gain quicker acceptance with fewer questions asked.

Thus I persuaded them to change the name of their letter a little to echt and to let me assert that the name had its origin in the Jewish German for “genuine.” It was risky, I suppose, hanging a lantern on its inauthenticity, but in the end, which came quickly and decisively, it wasn’t the name of the letter that undid the ruse, but what the damned thing looked like.

AT: And what was that?

JC: You must be joking. I can’t even take a sip of water without you butting in with unnecessary questions! Did you think I wasn’t going to tell you what this letter we’ve been talking about looked like? I know I’m not to be trusted, but trust me I was going to tell you.

But first let me explain why what the letter looked like was a problem. The problem. I said that I convinced the gonifs from Madison Avenue to give the new vowel a sympathetically Semitic name. The letter itself, though, wasn’t going to have come from Yiddish or Hebrew or even German or any other language than anyone on the planet still spoke or wrote. It couldn’t, or the gig would have been up before it even began. I had to claim to have discovered a description of the letter in a very, very old source—what that source would be was left up to me to choose—and, as I was led to understood the plan, it wouldn’t matter that no such source existed, because by the time I would be called upon to reveal the source, the hoax would already have been revealed as a publicity stunt.

Do you want to pause here for station identification, or maybe another insipid prompt?

AT: That’s okay. Go ahead. You were saying that you——

JC: I know what I was saying! I’m senile, but I’m not demented. I was saying that I had to “discover” the letter in something very old. So I declared that I’d turned up in an ancient Norse manuscript (read to me by a research assistant, also invented) a description of a rune resembling a man or woman with wings that had been adapted by the Vikings from a Roman alphabet character (the original name of which had been, I said, lost to the ages). My argument, then, was that we should reinstate the letter to its rightful place in the roster.

What I didn’t know is that the Vikings were a very superstitious people. They were terrified in particular of anything that changed shape. So the notion that they would have a rune that suggested a person becoming a bird, or vice versa, was fundamentally unsound. And more than one ethnohistorian called me out. And then when I was asked, much earlier than expected, to make my research available for scrutiny, I found that no one on Madison Avenue had ever heard of me or my malicious deception, obviously perpetrated for personal gain alone.

I was reviewed by the college and denied tenure, of course. I was summarily dismissed. And that was it for me, really. It was sixty-odd years ago, but I never worked in academia again. I couldn’t. No one would let me. I suppose I wouldn’t let me, either.

AT: So what have you been doing for the past sixty years, then?

JC: None of your business.

AT: What do you think you’ll do for the next sixty years?

JC: You’re a regular Jack Benny. Is it lunchtime yet? Are you allergic to anything? Maybe I can get a bowl of it for you.

AT: Thank you again.

JC: It was my pleasure. Zei gezunt.

Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.

Read more humor here. Or read some fiction here.