The Opposite Impressions of S and F

I was fifteen, I think, when I first considered the letter S and the letter F. There are no two letters more opposite, in my mind.  In Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice, the protagonist, while learning to read and write, gives her opinion of letters:

She liked best the O, the D and the G, for they looked friendly. Z seemed mean, X wicked; and W always made her yawn. Q was by far the most beautiful, she thought, even if it could not stand alone and must be accompanied everywhere by the compliant U (p. 74, The Midwife’s Apprentice)

S and F may also be considered by the impression their shape gives on the page. S, I believe, is prettier even than Q, a pleasing swirl, curvy and soft, that takes little effort to create, without even the need to lift the pen’s nib from the paper. And S is not only lovely to behold; its substantial base gives it strength where it rests. It is sturdy and true, and though rounded its footing will not falter; S will do no more than gently rock, too evenly distributed to fall.

F, on the other hand, is top-heavy, its weight irregularly distributed on its one narrow foot. In other words, F is doomed to fall. The only other letter that stands such is P, which at least has a soft curve to catch it should it stumble. F is all harsh angles and points, and to write well requires the effort to lift the pen twice from a page.

It is little wonder, then, that there seem so many words associated with beauty and good that begin with S, and so many words linked to weakness, grief and loneliness that begin with F.


sacred, safe, sanctuary, saved, shimmer, shine, soft, solid, soothing, sparkle, special, splendid, stable, strong, succeed


fade, fail, faint, fall, false, falter, fatal, fatigued, fault, fear, forgotten, forlorn, fragile, frail, frightened

There are some words, of course, that break this trend – sorrow and sick, faith and fortune – but for me, since hearing the chorus of Fuel’s Shimmer – hearing and understanding, not how it was heard by only my child’s ears long before I was fifteen – S is forever raised above while F remains troubled and broken below.

All that shimmers in this world is sure to fade (Fuel)

(Graphics sourced from


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