An Entire Alphabet of Scarlet Letters

Is it preposterous to wonder whether letters of the alphabet have an inherent color?  As I conduct ongoing research for One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, I can’t help but ask myself why it is that letters are so often described as having a rosy hue.  Most readers will recall the infamous red “A” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, but as Steven Heller pointed out, “The Scarlet Letter is not the only scarlet letter” (The Education of an Illustrator).  Nor are scarlet letters solely brands of shame, sin, or doom.  A “red letter day” is a holiday, or at least a memorable or happy day (the phrase likely dating from 1549, when Saint’s days were marked in red in the Book of Common Prayer).  Can there be a natural wavelength that writers instinctively pick up on?  Virginia Woolf’s eyes seemed keen enough to detect infrared all the way to Z: “After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance” (To the Lighthouse).

Biblical allusions associate the color scarlet with sins of the body, and by coloring their letters red, authors seem to flesh them out and add a spark of life.  Take, for example, this description by Brian Moynahan: “[W]hen I came to read [the psalms], they seemed written in letters of fire or of scarlet” (The Faith: A History of Christianity).  Nathaniel Hawthorne also mentioned a burning quality to his scarlet letter: “[Placing it to my breast,] I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron” (The Scarlet Letter).  Sparkling red letters can even burn the imagination: “In my head a scarlet letter blazed,” says Betty Fussell (My Kitchen Wars).  Whether or not the context involves physical branding with a red-hot iron (examples would be rather too gruesome for inclusion here), blood imagery often figures in. As John Lawton wrote, “She rubbed the [handkerchief’s embroidered] scarlet letter between finger and thumb, felt the crispness of dried blood” (Bluffing Mr. Churchill).  George C. Chesbro dramatically combines both blood and fire imagery in his depiction of an alphabet volcano “spewing what appeared to be incomplete, fractured sentences and clustered gobs of words that were half submerged in a river of blood red lava” (The Language of Cannibals).  And consider this more serene example by poet Madeline Defrees, who seems to agree that scarlet letters are written by nature herself and in turn read by nature as well: “And who, / when scarlet letters / flutter in air from sumac and maple, / will be there to / receive them? Only a sigh / on the wind in the land of bending willow” (“Almanac,” Blue Dusk: New and Selected Poems, 1951-2001).

Most often, scarlet letters have a dazzling quality which you can’t help but notice.  Here’s one example by Wilkie Collins: “[B]elow the small print appeared a perfect galaxy of fancifully shaped scarlet letters, which fascinated all eyes” (Hide and Seek).  Groucho Marx recalled being fascinated by similar red letters: “In large, scarlet letters [the handbills] said, ‘Would you like to communicate with your loved ones even though they are no longer in the flesh?’” (Memoirs of a Mangy Lover).  It is as if the letters of Groucho’s handbill had a rosy flesh of their own, and enough charge to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.  Here’s another example of a dazzling red letter, by Ian Rankin: “There was a big letter X marking the spot [for a parachute jump].  It was made from two lengths of shiny red material, weighted down with stones” (Resurrection Men: An Inspector Rebus Novel).  Michael McCollum sums up nicely the impact of scarlet letters: “The [comet collision] display froze, save for a single blinking word etched in scarlet letters: Impact!” (Thunderstrike!) Red letters have impact, alright!

Following is an entire alphabet of scarlet letters that I have collected, many as marks of shame but others simply pulsing with the red blush of life (or at least a strawberry birthmark). Whether or not red is definitively the natural color of the alphabet is a question that is bound to remain controversial, but the body of evidence is certainly mounting.

A — “The next day she had felt that the scarlet letter A—for Alcohol—was seared across her forehead, but her parents continued in their befuddled ignorance.” This Body: A Novel of Reincarnation by Laurel Doud

B — “The shirt and bloomers [of the baseball suit] were gray, with narrow red stripes. There were two big red letter B’s lying loose in the box.” Carney’s House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace

C — “From now on Joe is the man with the Scarlet Letter. He has ‘C’ [for Communist] written on his coat, put there by men who know him best.” Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator by Arthur Herman

D — “[S]ince there is a no-fault divorce law, a party can be perfectly innocent and still get the scarlet letter—in this case a D—stitched on his shirt.” Breach of Promise by James Scott Bell

E — “Barring sewing a scarlet letter E on her clothes, they knew enough about her daughter’s mental illness [erotomania] and past history to keep her away from, or at least warn, any female authority figures who might unwittingly cross her path.” I Know You Really Love Me: A Psychiatrist’s Account of Stalking and Obsessive Love by Doreen Orion

F — “Never mind that they are doctors, lawyers, world leaders; they must still wear a scarlet letter, a giant red F, if, heaven forbid, they’re fat.” The Blessed by Sharon McMahon Moffitt

This award-winning scarlet letter A was created by Matteo Bologna / Muccatypo for One-Letter Words: A Dictionary.  The font is called Decora.

G — “The first illustration was of a young man with short wavy hair and a fringe of reddish beard, standing by himself inside the arc of a giant red G.” Codex by Lev Grossman

H — “You look and smell like a street whore from the slums. Did you know it is within regulations for me to brand you with the letter H for harlot? . . . Tomorrow night I will fetch the brand which imprints the scarlet letter. I think I will put it upon your breasts. Yes, an H upon each. Two H’s. They will brand you forever as Helford’s Harlot!” The Pirate and the Pagan by Virginia Henley

I — “Has a big red letter ‘I’ appeared on my chest, branding me as infertile to the world?” —“The Goddess Speaks” by Dot Shigemura

J — “If they do walk free, they should carry a warning to the rest of us. Maybe a scarlet letter J, for jackal, sewn onto all their clothes.” —“Bottom Line Attracts Bottom Feeders” by Michael Miller

K — “Mark born or unborn [children] with a red letter K.” —“Count Your Sins” by Audrey Tarvids

L — “It was like I’d been branded with a scarlet letter L for liar, and I felt as though no one treated me the same for weeks after that.” Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward

M — “Sometimes, I feel as though I’m wearing a horrifying scarlet letter—only the letter is M, for Murderess.” Hide & Seek by James Patterson

N — “When a brand-new exhibitor with her first dog joins a kennel club, she wears a large scarlet letter (N for Novice) on her breast that is visible to everyone but her.” Dog Showing for Beginners by Lynn Hall

O — “A giant O [referring to the stigma of an open relationship] would hang above our house, a scarlet letter emblazoned upon the sky for the general protection of the citizenry.” The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom by Daniel Jones

P — “Half-way up the hill a prominent lump of grey stone the size of a hayrick had been painted with a large, lop-sided letter P in scarlet paint, so that it was visible to any ship anchored in the lagoon.” Blue Horizon by Wilbur Smith

Q — “I didn’t know that there was a pain like that in the world. And I writhed from the torture of it—a clotted red letter ‘Q’ spread across my eyes and started to quiver.” Die Reise nach Petuschki by Wenedikt Jerofejew

R — “The weight of an invisible scarlet letter R, for rapist.” The Pledge by Rob Kean

S — “‘It’s all getting to be a real burden for those of us who still smoke.’ Susan Saunders says. ‘Today’s “scarlet letter” is the big red S we smokers feel we wear around our necks.’” The No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Own Way Guide to Quitting Smoking by Tom Ferguson

T — “I was only good for punishment, and punished I was, never fear. I pinned on my scarlet letter—mine would be a T, for toe-sucking—and wore it everywhere, with a sort of perverse comfort.” My Story by Sarah Ferguson

U — “[A]nyone who challenges their policies is threatened with the new Scarlet Letter—U—for Unpatriotic.” —“Support Our Troops?” by Gregory Reck

V — “Although self-pity thwarts self-acceptance, wearing the scarlet letter V (for victim) allows us to take the moral high ground.” Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God by Brennan Manning

W — “Davenport marked all nomads in his [eugenics] table with a scarlet W (for Wanderlust, the common German term for ‘urge to roam’). He then examined the distribution of W’s through families and generations to reach one of the most peculiar and improbable of conclusions ever advanced in a famous study: nomadism, he argued, is caused by a single gene.” The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

X — “Branded with the scarlet letter ‘X’ in the new MPAA ratings system, Midnight Cowboy nonetheless encountered absolutely no difficulties at the box office.” The Sixties: 1960-1969 by Paul Monaco

Y — “[I]t is the symbols of Communism that return to attack and kill Benny, and in the last lines of [Benedikt Erofeev’s] novel [Moscow Circles], it is the red letter ‘Y’ that spreads before Benny’s eyes as he dies. Throughout the novel, it is this letter that has symbolized Benny’s participation in the symbolic order, as it is the only letter his baby son knows.” —“Moscow Circles” by Avril Tonkin

Z — “Sesar got up and looked at his watch. In the center of the black face was a red letter Z. It began to flash.” Neo-Zed by Anonymous

Heather McIntyreAbout the Guest Author, Craig Conley
Craig is an independent scholar and author of dozens of strange and unusual books, including a unicorn field guide and a dictionary of magic words. He also loves color: Prof. Oddfellow

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