As hard as it may be to imagine now, our ABC’s were once entirely real and not just odd scribbles on a piece of paper or a tune sung in preschool.
In its long history, the alphabet was often changing and really something of a mess. Letters rarely got along. The order of the alphabet is largely due to who liked and disliked whom. For example, B and P have always had affection for each other but had quite a stormy relationship. Over time they drifted apart, ending up at opposite ends of the alphabet. Believe it or not, A was not always at the beginning of the alphabet. In fact, it was not until the great war of words that A came to take charge of the entire alphabet, but that is a story for another time.
Disagreements about spelling were all too common. Letters worked very hard to be favored one over another. Some went so far as to take on extravagant sounds depending on what word they wedged themselves into. Y fashioned herself as an occasional vowel to create an air of sophistication about her. Other letters traveled the globe and got mixed up with different languages. After spending time in Europe, some letters insisted on wearing funny hãts or particular shoęs when sounded out in words from other parts of the world.
Until only just recently, Q and C had a particularly nasty rivalry. Of course, this was mostly because at times they wanted to sound alike and also because they looked something alike. Q and C quibbled nearly constantly. For an otherwise simple word like “acquire” they feuded for years and years. Even in this rare example of peaceful negotiation it took longer to compromise on an order between them than it did to actually quarrel about the word in the first place.
The long history of fighting between Q and C is legendary and too long and storied to be chronicled here. Their single greatest conflict, however, is a tale very worth telling. It began simply enough with an infatuation with cotton—not the fabric, of course, but the word. At the time, the spelling of “cotton” was far from settled. Q was completely infatuated with winning the spelling contest. And who could blame him? Cotton could be so sweet in cotton candy and so cute in cottontail rabbits and so fun in a cotton ball. He was smitten. Of course, C was just as taken with cotton and just as determined to claim its spelling for himself.
The quarrel over cotton began quietly with little more than each side spinning yarns and spreading rumors. Next C and Q fell into name calling and cursing (and name calling and cursing about the spelling of “cursing”). Soon C and Q had moved past simple rivalry into bitter hatred. At a local dictionary the two letters got into a shoving match. After that, as he was a bit of an underdog in the alphabet (though he might never admit it), Q sought out an alliance. Q and U got along famously, and so U was soon easily enlisted as an ally. C responded by convincing K to join forces with him. Eventually ruled lines were drawn for battle, and even punctuation had signed up to fight on both sides of the growing conflict. Other letters’ grudges played out as the fight between Q and C became a means to settle small scores. Even foreigners like the Oxford comma joined in. The two armies steadily grew with new recruits.
Both sides strategized, formulating plans to take the other letter’s capital. Pencils were sharpened. Paper was filed for maximum cut. The commanders of both armies prepared to carry out sentences. Syllables were stressed to the point of breaking.
No one knows quite how it started. One side may have dangled a modifier to taunt the other. Whatever the case, the battle that had been building for weeks and months exploded. Each side charged in a roar of sounds all pronounced at once.
Vowels connected consonants in supply lines. Letters skilled at silence sneaked unheard into enemy words gathering intelligence as spies. P shooters rained down artillery on their foes.
Day after day, each side would advance their clause only to be fought back. The tactics were bold, italicized, and underlined. The fighting was brutal and unceasing. Having arrived at a near stalemate and suffering near exhaustion, both sides mustered all their forces for a decisive final attack. Both armies unleashed everything in their arsenals. Air quotes flew overhead on repeated bombing runs. The two sides rushed onto the battlefield clashing violently, and so it was that C and Q found themselves face to face trading blows.
The two commanding letters brawled. C struck Q, and Q struck back. Each wrestled and strained against the other’s might. In a fateful moment, all the letters on that field of battle heard the deafening crack. C raised up to strike hard against Q yet again only to freeze at the sight. Before him laid Q broken. His round form had been shattered, and his curved tail broken away. What C saw before him was his very own letterform as though it were a terrible mirror. Part of Q remained as a ragged looking C struggling in pain.
C’s heart turned in a moment as he was instantaneously moved. The fighting paused, and a hush descended over the battlefield as C crouched near to Q. It was lost on neither of them the significance of the comfort found in the cotton gauze C hurriedly tied around Q’s broken pieces applying pressure to his wounds.
Seeing the folly of their ways, C and Q declared a truce—not merely as former enemies but as newfound brothers. The battle had laid bare the many petty rivalries and grudges and disagreements throughout the entire alphabet. The two sides came to decide very important things on that day. First, they decided that “cotton” would simply be spelled with a C and that was the end it. More importantly they put aside their many differences in favor of working together to build a great many words yet left unsaid. To remember this momentous day, the letters of the alphabet sought out a simple reminder, a monument of a sort. While they’ve come to have many uses since that day, the alphabet chose to memorialize their peace and hopeful new understanding with a cotton-wrapped element to represent the very end of Q’s once broken tail—what we now know as the Q-tip.