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  • Krazy About K

    Certain letters seem rare, like precious metals or noble gases. Such letters act as catalysts and have special properties—they may glow when “excited” by electricity, say, like neon and fluorine, the aptly named “lighter” elements. Similarly, some letters function in a special way beyond phonetics, often as logos and symbols, as signs of speech and phonetics.

    The use of rare letters is a tool of the brand maker and the logo designer. Like the letter X, K allures with its angular edges and uncommon appeal. Eleventh in the alphabet, K is only the 22nd most common letter in English usage—worth five points on the Scrabble board. The letterform is descended from the Phoenician Kaph, which is thought to derive from the palm of a hand, with fingers split. In reverse, it became the Greek Kappa and the form we recognize today.

    Vintage ads for Kool cigarettes (flickr: alan(ator)) and Kool-Aid (flickr: casualslack).

    K is flippant and breezy, wild as Krazy Kat and cool as in Kool (the mentholated cigarette brand) and Kool-Aid (the drink favored by kids and cults). K is the intoxicating song of the evening katydid and the stammering sailor-and-soldier song “K-K-K-Katy.”

    K's are more Teutonic than Latinate, and more Greek as well. K was a casualty of the Norman Conquest, in 1066, when the francophone, higher class Q and C came along to suppress K.

    Q, a wheel with its little chock to keep it from rolling away, looks like it should be a vowel, with its open-mouthed exclamation. It is said to have come from a Phoenician “monkey face” letter. Q is the rump and the tail, according to Victor Hugo in his famous discussion of the alphabet in his 1839 travel notebooks. Q comes with its sidekick U to mimic K's sound.

    Vladimir Nabokov, in his famous colored alphabet, rendering synesthetic visions of the spoken sound, envisioned a “huckleberry K.” He writes, “Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see Q as browner than K.”

    Like K, Q is also useful as logo and brand for its air of mystery and obscurity. Q is the guy who outfits James Bond with his spy gear, as well the symbol for a high-level security clearance. Q ships are mystery ships.

    K as a substitute for C is often used to sound cute and colloquial but frequently comes out corny. In a Texas town I recently spotted a shop called Komputer Korner. Poet Ezra Pound's mock cowboy tones showed up in the title of his 1938 book of essays, Guide to Kulchur.

    In his notebooks Hugo also declared that K “is the angle of reflection equal to the angle of incidence, one of the keys to geometry.” Therefore, K is a bank shot!

    K is part of OK, that great American phrase, as essential as Uncle Sam or the bald eagle. From “oll korrect” or “Old Kinderhook”— the lore of its origins is embedded in a lost world of Dutch jokes and Martin Van Buren—OK, or okay, became a world export, like kola. It's also often reduced to a rapid, abbreviated 'K (who has time to say both letters anymore?).

    The opposite of OK is KO—knocked out. K in the game of baseball designates a strike out, as marked on the box score. Strikeouts are celebrated by fans in the stands holding up posters bearing large K's, and TV tracks them as the total grows during a game. The New York Mets now have the power pitcher Francisco Rodriguez, nicknamed “K-Rod.” In journalism and publishing, “TK” is derived from 'tokum,' the intentional misspelling of “to come,” a placeholder for a fact to be researched.

    K means a thousand, from the Greek ancestral word kilo, giving us 10K races and our (now shrinking) 401(k)s. K-rations, the daily G.I. food supplied by the Army, packed three meals and several thousand calories into convenient packets. That gave way eventually to Ken-L Ration dog food, nutrition for the K-9 Corps.

    Kodak logos from 1987 (top) and today.

    Before high-tech companies looked to Q and X and Z (think Qwest, Xerox, Zune) to suggest the advanced and the exotic, K signaled progress. George Eastman's choice of K in 1888 might have been the catalyst to spark the craze. After much effort, Eastman invented the word 'Kodak' with the ambition of making it part of the language. He wanted a registered global trademark, so, according to official company history, “Eastman invented it out of thin air.”

    “I devised the name myself,” Eastman explained. “The letter 'K' had been a favorite with me—it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K.' The word 'Kodak' is the result.”

    Eastman also wanted it to be recognizable and pronounceable around the world. And the 'K' in Kodak seemed friendly, almost as kidlike as Palmer Cox's Brownies, the children's book characters that Eastman used to promote his cameras.

    Before Kodak, K's were uncommon, implying something vaguely Eastern. The K's in Ku Klux Klan were supposed to seem mysterious and foreign, recalling the K's in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, “Kubla Khan.” (The Klan language, with words like 'kleagle' and 'klavern,' suggests a more sinister relative of the Shriners, with their fezzes and scimitars.)

    After Kodak, K became a powerful player in the world of commercial names. It came to imply technology, speed and modernity. K began to surface in all kinds of brand names during the 20th century. Kleenex has been a Kimberly-Clark trademark since 1924. And today, comb the Yellow Pages and kitschy puns on C and Q words abound: Kwik Kopy printing, Krazy Kritters pet service, Kuts & Kolors hair salon, Krystal Kleen laundromat. There's an early 20th-century, comic-book feel to these names (à la Krazy Kat), but the words also sound fast and sleek, like the hot rods of language, making them ideal for the Kalifornia Kustom Kar Kulture.

    (clockwise from top) Branding for Kwik Fill gas station, Krystal fast food and Kellogg's Special K.

    In the 1920s, Kellogg's put out Rice Krispies and in the 1950s Special K, taking advantage of K's popularity in the early 20th century. Fast-food chain Krystal, founded in 1932, was never became a mass-market success. And Chrysler's K-cars seemed to be a merely bureaucratic designation, the barebones model suggesting a company so poor it couldn't even afford a colorful name and just used inventory numbers for its models.

    Kmart comes from Kresge, the predecessor of that big box store. K-Y Jelly, according to its maker, came from “meaningless pair of initials used to designate the product during research-and-development phase.”

    What would Yiddish be without the K, ever-important for its humorous, Germanic undertones? Think kvetch, kitsch, knish, kibbitz. That student of Borscht belt humor, Neil Simon addressed the comic appeal of K in The Sunshine Boys. As his comedian character Willy explains, “Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka Seltzer,' you get a laugh . . . Words with 'k' in them are funny.”

    In a 1948 New Yorker article, H.L. Mencken made a similar case for K in place names, writing that “K, for some occult reason, has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American plain people.” He continues that K has made many names “joke towns”: Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hohokus. I think Ronkonkoma and Cucamonga could have also made the cut.

    More recently, the great Roy Blount, Jr., in his book Alphabet Juice, gets a kick out of K, too. In his account on letters and language, Blount calls attention to Kafka, who is said to have found the letter K “offensive, almost disgusting.” The creator of Josef K. would nonetheless have been dismayed at the stupidity of Amerika, as his novel The Man Who Disappeared was posthumously named. Kafka loved the vision of an idealized America. For Amerika to suggest fascism, in the tortured logic of the counterculture, was misleading.

    And what of the silent K, as Steven Guarnaccia reminded me? I had nearly forgotten! Knight, knee, knowledge and similar words are a silent killer for those trying to learn our crazy English orthography.

    Krispy Kreme logo.

    Alas, my very favorite K's are those in Krispy Kreme, the Southern doughnut brand whose delectable products were visible even from the parking lot of the company's original bakery, in Winston-Salem. Maybe I'm drawn to those K's because I've seen and smelled the doughnuts rolling along their little assembly through a sugar-glaze bath, to emerge steamy and fresh. Is the K in Krispy Kreme supposed to suggest a character, perhaps a running waiter? The packages, with eager twin K's bent to their task, make the consumption of doughnuts seem festive, the red and green suggesting Christmas all year.

    So, branders, bring on your KRZRs. Here's hoping 2009 marks the return of the incomparable K.

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