The Church of I Am That I Am
The Church of I AM THAT I AM

It’s been a while, but I’m still aiming to catalog all the two-letter words in the English language. That brings us to am, which is a simple and common word. I’m sure you can use it in a sentence. But can you define it? According to the Wiktionary, it’s the “first-person singular simple present indicative form of be.” (I’ll deal with be later.) It’s a state-of-being verb, famously deployed in statements such as “I am that I am” and “I think therefore I am.” But both of those are translations from other languages: אהיה אשר אהיה (Ehyeh asher ehyeh) and Je pense, donc je suis or Cogito ergo sum. I’m trying to think of a famous am in original English but I’m drawing a blank. “I am a jelly donut,” perhaps? No, that’s Ich bin ein Berliner. Oh well.

Four words can be formed by adding a letter at the end of am:

  1. An ama is a female nurse (possibly a wet nurse) who looks after children, a variant of amah, borrowed from India or China. It could also be goat-hair fabric or an outrigger float.
  2. An ami is a friend. I thought this was a French word, but apparently some sources consider it to have entered the English language.
  3. Amp is short for ampere, a unit of electrical measurement.
  4. An amu is an atomic mass unit, which is one of those acronyms that has evolved into a word, like scuba or radar. It must be tricky to figure out exactly when that happens.

Twelve words can be formed by adding a letter to the beginning of am:

  1. As Emiril likes to say when he kicks it up a notch: “Bam!”
  2. A cam is a little lopsided thing that turns around in various types of machinery.
  3. A dam is a thing that beavers and humans build.
  4. Gam is a slangy term for a leg, but also a collective noun for a group of whales, and apparently also a nautical verb for making a social visit at sea.
  5. I think ham is too common to need definition.
  6. Ditto jam.
  7. For some reason we’re all familiar with the phrase “on the lam,” but no one can seem to explain what a lam is, exactly.
  8. What, nam is a word? It’s listed in Webster’s 1913 as an obsolete term meaning “am not.” I think we should bring this one back. “I nam a crook!”
  9. Apparently there’s a card game called pam. The jack of clubs is the highest trump in the game, so you can also call that jack a pam.
  10. A ram is a mature male sheep.
  11. A tam is a Scottish cap, short for Tam o’ Shanter
  12. A yam is similar to a sweet potato. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but they are actually two separate and distinct tubers.

By the by, the two photos featured above are of a single church in New Orleans. The pictures were taken a year apart by two different photographers, and I guess the building was renovated in the interim. Neither of the photographers appears to live in New Orleans, and I doubt they’ve seen each others’ photos. Credits below.

The Church of I Am That I Am / Ari Frede / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Church of I AM THAT I AM / Mills Baker / CC BY 2.0


Noni plant


Aj is not a word, so we come to al, an Indian mulberry. Wait, that sounds awfully familiar. Aha, that’s because I wrote about the variant spelling aal already.

It’s an evergreen shrub, Morinda tinctoria, commonly known as the Indian mulberry. The root bark of the young plant is used to make red, brown or purple morindone dye.

It seems there’s another species, Morinda citrifolia, which is also known as the Indian mulberry, or aal, or al. Both these shrubs can be used in the production of a dye which is use in batik. Both bear the noni fruit, which apparently has become the subject of some controversy.

Words that can be formed by adding a letter in front of al:

We’ve already talked about aal. A bal is a sort of shoe; it’s short for balmoral, which should by no means be confused with an oxford. I always enjoy the lentil dish dal when I can find it, though I spell it dahl. I used to have a gal pal who used the word sal to mean “cool” or “hip,” but I think the orthodox definition is salt, a mostly obsolete term used for chemical compounds like sal ammoniac.

Words that can be formed by adding a letter at the end of al:

Apparently ala refers to a wing or winglike structure; for example, there’s a part of your pelvis known as the wing of ilium. An alb is a long-sleeved priest-like vestment. I think I used to wear one of these when I was an altar boy. We all like ale, right? An alp is a mountain; yes, it’s a common noun. The plural of al is als. An alt is a high note such as an alto might sing.

Noni plant / Dinesh Valke / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Noni / Rob Ellis / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Three Toed Sloth

Some two-letter words are ordinary and banal, while others are obscure but ultimately aggravating, and finally there are those that are both obscure and gratifying. In this last category we find ai, a variety of three-toed sloth native to South America. When it comes to three-toed sloths there are only four kinds. You’ve got your pygmies, your pale-throats and your brown-throats, and your maned sloths. That’s what an ai is. File it away for future reference; it is in knowing such things that we find the gratification previously mentioned.

Also of note: ai takes no letter in front to form a three-letter word, the first such word we’ve encountered in this listing.

From the rear it takes seven: aid, ail, aim, ain, air, ais and ait. Most of these are familiar, and I assume ais is the plural of ai. As for ain, that looks like Scots to me, meaning “own.” That leaves ait, which refers to an island in a river. It’s obscure and chiefly British and used mostly for islands in the Thames, but this seems like a word that deserves to be more widely deployed. Anyone who’s enjoyed a riparian island knows they have a special character all their own; it only stands to reason they should have a name.

Three Toed Sloth / Pierre Pouliquin / CC BY-NC 2.0


logo Albert Heijn Emerald Delfgauw

Ah, yes, so now we come to one of my favorite words: ah. I like this word because it’s so dramatic yet also so subtle and ambiguous. It can mean almost anything — or almost nothing — depending on how it’s inflected.

  • “Ah, this bath feels great.”
  • “Ah, say what now?”
  • “Ah, what a beautiful painting.”
  • “Ah, you’re full of baloney.”
  • “Ah, now I get it.”
  • “Ah ah ah, don’t touch!”

It takes eight different letters up front, but only one on the rear. The word aah I already mentioned, and bah should be familiar to anyone who knows their humbug, but what does dah mean exactly? Answer: That’s how you say a “dash” when speaking Morse code. “Dit dit dit, dah dah dah, dit dit dit.” Sound familiar? That’s S.O.S.

I don’t suppose that hah or nah need much introduction, but pah might. It’s an exclamation of disgust, as in, “Pah! I hate the taste of ground earthworm.” Not much to say about rah or yah except to note I’ve always preferred “yeah” as the spelling for the slang form of “yes” — but that’s just me.

On the other end, the only three-letter word to be formed is aha, which is a close relative of ah and aah, but with more of an implicitly revelatory connotation. A revelatory relative, so to speak.

logo Albert Heijn Emerald Delfgauw / Gerard Stolk /


Chinese Ag

There is no af, so the next word I will consider is ag, which is short for agriculture. Like ab, it would seem to be most natural as an adjective. “I’m auditing a couple of ag classes down at the community college.” But it’s also, apparently, an expression of annoyance that comes to us from South Africa. “Ag, those ag courses are awful.”

Ag takes a bunch of letters on the front end, to derive such commonplace words as bag, fag, gag, hag, jag, lag, mag, rag, sag, tag, wag and zag. (Yes, zag is a word. Opposite of zig.)

I left off dag only because it bears special mention. Though I was not entirely sure this was a legitimate word, it seems to have no less than six etymologically distinct definitions. The most amusing of these is “a clump of feces stuck to the wool of a sheep, also used in Australia as a term of friendly abuse” (via Wikipedia) which has apparently given rise to an Australian subculture.

On the other end, ag generates only three words, the familiar age and ago, as well as the less well-known aga.

What’s an aga? Why, it’s an alternate form of agha, natch. Ah, yes, “an honorific for high officials used in Turkey and certain Muslim countries” (via Wiktionary). For example, it seems that in the Ottoman Empire the Sultan’s harem was run by the Kizlar Agha and the Kapi Agha — the Chief Black Eunuch and the Chief White Eunuch, respectively. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that (aga or agha) means eunuch; I think it derives from the Turkish ağa meaning “lord, master, chief, boss, landowner.” As strange as it may seem, the Kizlar Agha was the third most power official in the entire empire, subordinate only to the Sultan himself and the Grand Vizier.

Chinese Ag / Alex and Stacy / CC BY 2.0


Statue of Robert Burn

And so now we come to ae, the most controversial word we’ve yet seen. Or so it seems to me. The controversy springs from a fundamental linguistic question: Is Scots a dialect or a language? If a dialect, than sure fine, ae is a word in the English language. It means simply “one,” and is perhaps most famously deployed in the great poem by Robert Burns, “Ae Fond Kiss”:

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!

But, if Scots is not a dialect, if Scots is its own language, then ae is a foreign word — not English — and thus would have no place on this list.

Pride and politics makes the question even stickier. The notion of a language generally commands greater respect than the notion of a dialect. I’d expect that passionate advocates of the Scots revival think of it as a language and want others to regard it as such.

For what it’s worth, my spellchecker doesn’t recognize it.

Of course, this is a question that has been debated for ages, and my very conceptions of dialect and language are hopelessly naïve. Suffice to say, ae is on the official two-letter word lists that count, for people who care about such things, which is to say players of Scrabble and Words with Friends.

Can you make words from ae? Yes you can, but most of them look strange to me: gae, hae, kae, mae, nae, sae, tae and wae. My first hunch was these were all Scots as well, and perhaps they are.

  • gae = go
  • hae = have
  • kae = jackdaw
  • mae = may?
  • nae = no, not
  • sae = so
  • tae = to
  • wae = woe

I found all these words in The Scots Tongue by Girvan McKay. Some may have other meanings that are not Scots-related, but if so they are pretty obscure. Which is what makes them such good words to know.

Strangely enough, ae doesn’t take a letters on the rear, not even s. I call this strange because it’s the first such word in this list, but more so because I have long considered aes a valid English word. Gene Wolfe uses it for a denomination of coin in The Book of the New Sun. Turns out it’s the Latin word for bronze, and isn’t generally listed in English dictionaries.

Statue of Robert Burn / Victhor Viking /



After aa and ab one might expect ac to be next, but alas ac is not a word. Oddly enough, there are no two-letter words in the English language containing the letter c. Every other letter is represented — except v.

Thus the next word to consider is ad, a banal word if ever there was one, short for advertisement. With all apologies to my friends in the biz, no one really likes advertisements, except during the Superbowl, and even that’s an iffy proposition. So ad is sad.

Speaking of which, you can make a slew of three-letter words by adding a letter to the front of ad, all quite familiar: bad, cad, dad, fad, gad, had, lad, mad, pad, rad, sad, tad and wad, which stands out like a sore thumb as the only one that doesn’t rhyme. On the other end we get add, ado and of course ads. The only one that’s new to me is adz, which is just an alternative spelling of the old cutting tool adze, but obviously an important strategic word for game players.

Ho hum. As a rule I hate to call anything boring, but this word is getting close to it. It did get me wondering, how many ads do we see (or hear) each day? According to one survey of the research, the answer is anywhere between 247 and three thousand — or even more. That seems clearly ludicrous, but it underscores a reality few would dispute: Namely, whatever the true number is, it’s a lot. A significant percentage of our collective mindshare is occupied by advertising messages — information no one desires. That is problematic.

Let’s-Go-Shopping / James Vaughan /


6 *SECOND* ABS Program

I believe the word ab is a fairly recent addition to the mainstream lexicon.

I guess it stems from our fetishization of the muscular midriff. It’s most often seen in plural form, as in “six-pack abs.” (That’s surely an ironic phrase since drinking six-packs would seem to be at odds with getting a six pack.) I was a little perplexed by the notion of ab in the singular, however. I can’t imagine referring to a single abdominal muscle using this catchall term; one would specify the particular muscle, the rectus abdominis, or whatever. Then I realized ab is most commonly used as not as a noun but an adjective, as in “ab workout.”

Of course you can form quite a few words by adding a single letter to the beginning or end of ab. Common words like cab, dab, gab, jab, lab, nab and tab need no introduction, and the same goes for the aforementioned abs. More obscure is kab, an alternate spelling for cab — not a taxi, but an ancient Hebrew unit of volumetric measure. A sab is someone who sabotages fox hunts for ethical principles. Coming at it from the other end, aba is either a fabric made from goat or camel hair, or a particular kind of garment made from said fabric, a loose-fitting sleeveless number worn by Bedouins. In Australia, at least, abo is a epithet for aboriginal peoples. (But I learned the word when I read Gene Wolfe’s otherworldly Fifth Head of Cerberus.) And how many people remember aby, which is an archaic verb meaning to pay for something? As Demetrius said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Disparage not the faith thou dost not know,
Lest, to thy peril, thou aby it dear.

Finally there’s wab. This one had me stumped for a minute but it appears to be another ethnic slur, according to the excellent Double-Tongued Dictionary.

Photo credit: 6 *SECOND* ABS Program / Seamus Walsh / CC BY 2.0


Aa Lava Flow

Consider the word aa. It is surely worthy of consideration, as it is one of the first words in most dictionaries — the very first possible word of two letters, in fact. There are only 101 two-letter words in the English language, according to the authoritative source. That’s a small enough number that any person who loves the language, as I do, can easily learn them all, and I aim to. It’s not enough to know that a word exists. I want to know where it came from and what it means. Aa is the place to start.

I’ve known this word since a middle school geology lesson, as a type of particularly rough volcanic rock. My science teacher told us that the name derived from the sound native Hawaiians would make as they ran barefoot across the jagged surface of the rock. Ah! Ah! As a boy I accepted this uncritically, and perhaps it’s a useful mnemonic. However, I now view that folk etymology as incorrect, not to mention vaguely insulting. According to an entry from a Hawaiian dictionary, I’m guessing the geologic meaning may derive from its primary association with burning and fire.


1. nvi. To burn, blaze, glow; fire; staring, as eyes (see ʻaʻā maka). Fig., angry; fury. ʻAʻā koke, combustible, inflammable. Ua ʻaʻā ka puʻu, the throat is on fire [with great thirst]. Ke ʻaʻā maila ka wahine, the woman burns hither [Pele and her volcanic fires approach]. Ua ʻaʻā ʻia au i ke aloha (FS 21), I burn with love. hoʻa.ʻā To kindle, light. Mea hoʻaʻā, fire kindling. (PNP kakaa.)

2. nvs. ʻAʻā lava; stony, abounding with ʻaʻa lava.

3. (Cap.) n. Sirius, a zenith star that passes over Tahiti and Raʻi-ātea, formerly believed used by navigators; one of the brightest stars in the heavens. See Sirius for var. names.

4. n. Young stage of damselfish (ʻāloʻiloʻi). Also ʻā.

It’s also useful to know the four words that can be derived by adding a single letter to aa. There’s baa, which is the sound a sheep makes; aah, an exclamation of amazement; and aas, which I assume night be the plural of aa. And then there’s aal, which is new to me. It’s an evergreen shrub, Morinda tinctoria, commonly known as the Indian mulberry. The root bark of the young plant is used to make red, brown or purple morindone dye.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Photo: Aa Lava Flow by C. Carlstead, licensed under Creative Commons