As one of our contributions to the exhibition 1969 at P.S.1, Matthew Day Jackson and I pay tribute to Sesame Street. In the show’s first episode, broadcast on November 10, 1969, Kermit the Frog tries to deliver a lecture on the letter W. He’s foiled first by Cookie Monster, who devours Kermit’s prop, then by the W itself, which comes to life and attacks him. Kermit is in 1969, gone grey to reflect other presences in the show. W lurks nearby as well.
W is a shifty sort of letter. To pronounce it we say “double-u,” but the pronunciation conspicuously lacks the /w/ sound it alleges to represent. To write it we mash two V’s together; it possesses no independent shape of its own.
W’s history is similarly suspect. The Latin alphabet, which evolved from a variant of the Greek alphabet circa the seventh century BC, did not originally feature the letter. In the Middle Ages scribes began knitting two V’s together in a ligature in order to represent sounds in Germanic languages not found in medieval Latin.
In Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which evolved in England from the fifth to the twelfth century from intertwined Norse and Germanic influences, W went for a while under the alias “wynn.” To write wynn, Anglo-Saxon scribes used a rune:
This strange proto-W appears in the Old English Rune Poem, an abecedarium that was probably composed in the eighth or ninth century. The rune denotes “joy” or “bliss,” and the poem goes like this:
Ƿenne bruceþ, ðe can ƿeana lyt
sares and sorge and him sylfa hæf
blæd and blysse and eac byrga geniht.
Bliss he enjoys who knows not pain,
sorrow nor anxiety, and himself has
prosperity and bliss and a good enough house.
was muscled out by VV around 1300, and VV evolved into W. By 1525 the letter was so well-established that Albrecht Dürer included it in his fussy and exacting On the Just Shaping of Letters, in which he put his stamp on—Dürerized, so to speak—the art of typography.
The Dürer lowercase w:
Dürer also designed more ornamental Gothic capital letters. His W:
W, having come a long way since its wynn days, enjoyed a prosperous twentieth century thanks to its role in denoting two ruinous global conflicts. Of late it’s come to dominate online. (True to its paradoxical nature, “double-u” makes the abbreviation “www” harder to say than the words “world wide web” themselves.)
W appears to enjoy its celebrity. Here it is being interviewed by Larry King: