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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
Vintage ads for Kool cigarettes (flickr:
alan(ator)) and Kool-Aid (flickr:
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.
The letter K Ladybird
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
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
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
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.
What does X stand for? According to Barringer’s exhaustive explication, there’s very little that the 24th letter does not represent.
Why did the editor/art director of the most innovative magazine of the past decade pull the plug? Heller turns the pages of Nest to find the answer.
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