Effable F

Donald Shephard

Is F effable or ineffable? Can it be described or not? Colleen sent me an e-mail the other day. In the subject line it said, “My new e-mail address will be ef..” I presume there was no more room for the rest of the word “effective”. That got me thinking about this letter F or, as the Cockneys of my childhood would say, the letter heff. It is a much-maligned letter due to its association with a singular word. I propose to you that the letter F is of fine family and fabled for its fabrications, ill deserved of its infamy, and worthy of your friendship. So I looked into the depths of my trusty Old English Dictionary for its origin. This is what I learned.

F (Ef), the sixth letter of the Roman alphabet, represents historically the 6th letter (waw) of the Semitic alphabet, which expressed the sounds of w (approximately) and the related vowel u. In Old English the letter retained the sound (f) unless it stood between two vowels, when it was pronounced as the corresponding voiced spirant (v). In the south-west, according to some scholars, the voiced sound was used also initially. In modern English F is always sounded (f), except in the word of, where it is voiced to (v) through absence of stress.

So that little insignificant word of is a relic of ancient pronunciation. I turned next to J.R.R. Tolkien who was a student of old language. In his foreword to “The Hobbit”, he writes this.

In English, the only correct plural of dwarf is dwarfs. In this story dwarves and dwarvish are used.

That made me think of similar words which now have the letter f in their plural form, but which had the letter v when I was growing up in England. We said two rooves not two roofs; two hooves not two hoofs; and the plural of reef was reeves not reefs. Long ago, even before my time, the plural of beef was not beefs but beeves. Now, all that is pretty much gone and of is the only remnant of the union of f and v. Now f stands alone.

Alone or not, it is a useful letter often used with reference to its (sixth) place in the alphabet. It can be found faithfully employed in both the arts and sciences. In Music F is the name of the fourth note of the diatonic scale of C major, called fa. The f clef or bass clef represents F below middle C on the piano. Elsewhere in music f stands for forte (loud), ff for (very loud) but sometimes ff stands for piu forte, and fortissimo is indicated by fff. As a musician, you would probably be writing your notes with a pencil. In our penurious avocation of writing, f is used to denote fine as the distinctive mark of a particular description of black-lead pencil.

While we are on the subject of writing, allow me to vent on the abuse of our subject letter. I think movies should have a published F-count. I want to know going in just how many times the screen writers so lacked imagination that they stooped to the use of the F-word. The resulting boycot of high F-count films would give Hollywood a tangible measure of the repugnance many of us feel when that wonderful and ancient Anglo-Saxon word is overused.

So much for the arts. They are not alone in their employment of our facile letter for it also factors into the sciences. In the study of the atmosphere, there is an F-layer or F-region. It is the highest and most strongly ionized layer in the ionosphere which is called the Appleton layer. Sounds to me as if there is a ton of apples way up in the sky above our heads. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live here in America use the archaic temperature scale called Fahrenheit. In physics and weather reports we abbreviate degrees Fahrenheit as degrees F and we are back to a form of our old friend of.

Our high fidelity letter has many uses as an understudy for words. In government, that uncontrolled birthplace of acronyms, F is used in place of Federal, as in F.B.I. Many of us have referred to the I.R.S. as the F.I.R.S. but I digress. In commerce, we assign F a different duty as an abbreviation. F.O.B. means Free On Board; that is the price quoted is the cost of the commodity when it is loaded on a truck, train, or ship. Talking of things maritime, the letter F in a ship’s log stands for fog; while FF stands for thick fog. We abbreviate fellow with a capital F, as in F.R.C.S. meaning Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Chemists, on the other hand refer to the element fluorine when they use the abbreviation F. Not to be forgotten is the use of F in biology. Geneticists use F1, F2 etcetera to distinguish first, second, filial generation.

Whether photography is an art or a science is beyond the scope of this treatise. In either case, photographers use both the uppercase F and the lower case f to denote focal length. It is used in combination with numbers to indicate the ratio between the focal length of the lens and the diameter of the stop. I must admit that I have never understood the jargon of photography, it is gobledygook to me. For a start, why do they use the phony ph in photograher in place of the down-to-earth and pragmatic F? Is it because they are afraid of being called those effers (not to be confused with a Cockney refering to young cows). Coincidently, my surname uses the ph consonantal digraph. It has the same phonetic value as F. Airports in California employ a great number of Filipinas. I once almost missed a flight in San Diego because I was being paged as “Mr. Sheffard”. Perhaps, in honor of F, I should change my name and perhaps not.

At the beginning of this essay I asked whether F is effable or ineffable. Can it be, or may it lawfully be, expressed or described in words or is its description impossible. For my money, F is by no means ineffable it deserves the Turkish title of respect which is chiefly applied to government officials (such as me) and to members of the learned professions (such as you). And so I end this paper by bestowing on the effable F the repected title of effendi.

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