Language

In a Word

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obolary
adj. poor or impecunious

inopious
adj. lacking wealth or resources; needy

ptochocracy
n. government by the poor

In a Word

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macrobian
adj. long-lived

annosity
n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness

Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:

Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep

See Jonathan Swift’s “Resolutions — When I Come to Be Old.”

An Untranslatable Poem

In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:

rua
      torta

                       lua
                             morta

                                              tua
                                                    porta.

Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”

In a Word

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juvencle
n. a young girl

minauderie
n. a coquettish manner or air

increpation
n. a chiding, reproof, or rebuke

porporate
adj. clad in purple

Testing Tongues

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Applicants for radio announcing jobs in the 1920s had to a pass a diction test — New York Daily News radio critic Ben Gross gives this example in his 1954 book I Looked and I Listened:

“Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.”

In the 1940s Radio Central New York administered a cold reading to prospective radio personalities to assess their speaking ability — announcer Del Moore found it so entertaining that he gave it to his friend Jerry Lewis, who made it a staple of his annual muscular dystrophy telethon:

In a Word

titivil

n. “Name for a devil said to collect fragments of words dropped, skipped, or mumbled in the recitation of divine service, and to carry them to hell, to be registered against the offender.” [OED]

In a Word

linguished
adj. skilled in language

logofascinated
adj. fascinated by words

logodaedaly
n. cunning in words; “verbal legerdemain”

oligoglottism
n. limited knowledge of languages

Noted

In North Wales the Welsh word for ‘now’ is ‘rwan.’ In South Wales it is ‘rwan’ spelt backwards, viz., ‘nawr.’ It is conjectured that the first North Walian who made use of the word was standing on his head at the time, and that his pronunciation became general.

The Cambrian, May 1901

In a Word

micropsychy
n. faint-heartedness

abulia
n. an inability to act decisively

quakebuttock
n. a coward

In a Word

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gynophagite
n. an eater of women

androphagous
adj. eating men

brephophagist
n. one who eats babies

GRKTRGDY

Here’s a special kind of genius: In 1997 Daniel Nussbaum rewrote Oedipus Rex using vanity license plates registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.

OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.

JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”

SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.

SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.

NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.

UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.

YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!

Output

The programming language Chef, devised by David Morgan-Mar, is designed to make programs look like cooking recipes. Variables are represented by “ingredients,” input comes from the “refrigerator,” output is sent to “baking dishes,” and so on. The language’s design principles state that “program recipes should not only generate valid output, but be easy to prepare and delicious,” but many of them fall short of that goal — one program for soufflé correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, but the recipe requires 32 zucchinis, 101 eggs, and 111 cups of oil to be combined in a bowl and served to a single person. Mike Worth set out to write a working program that could also be read as an actual recipe. Here’s what he came up with:

Hello World Cake with Chocolate sauce.

This prints hello world, while being tastier than Hello World Souffle. The main
chef makes a " world!" cake, which he puts in the baking dish. When he gets the
sous chef to make the "Hello" chocolate sauce, it gets put into the baking dish
and then the whole thing is printed when he refrigerates the sauce. When
actually cooking, I'm interpreting the chocolate sauce baking dish to be
separate from the cake one and Liquify to mean either melt or blend depending on
context.

Ingredients.
33 g chocolate chips
100 g butter
54 ml double cream
2 pinches baking powder
114 g sugar
111 ml beaten eggs
119 g flour
32 g cocoa powder
0 g cake mixture

Cooking time: 25 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Method.
Put chocolate chips into the mixing bowl.
Put butter into the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put beaten eggs into the mixing bowl.
Put flour into the mixing bowl.
Put baking powder into the mixing bowl.
Put cocoa  powder into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 1 minute.
Combine double cream into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 4 minutes.
Liquify the contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
bake the cake mixture.
Wait until baked.
Serve with chocolate sauce.

chocolate sauce.

Ingredients.
111 g sugar
108 ml hot water
108 ml heated double cream
101 g dark chocolate
72 g milk chocolate

Method.
Clean the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put hot water into the mixing bowl.
Put heated double cream into the mixing bowl.
dissolve the sugar.
agitate the sugar until dissolved.
Liquify the dark chocolate.
Put dark chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify the milk chocolate.
Put milk chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Worth confirmed that this correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, and then he used the same instructions to bake a real cake. “It was surprisingly well received,” he writes. “The cake was slightly dry (although nowhere near as dry as cheap supermarket cakes), but this was complimented well by the sauce. My brother even asked me for the recipe!”

While we’re at it: Fibonacci Numbers With Caramel Sauce.

In a Word

rosarian
n. a rose fancier; one interested or engaged in the cultivation of roses

The rose cultivar “Whitfield” is named for English comedy actress June Whitfield.

She said, “There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as ‘superb for bedding, best up against a wall.’”

In a Word

mumpsimus

n. a person who obstinately adheres to old ways, particularly in language; an ignorant and bigoted opponent of reform (also a custom so adhered to)

(Thanks, Cindy.)

Diner Lingo

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  • “Adam and Eve on a raft and wreck ‘em”: two scrambled eggs on toast
  • “Burn one, take it through the garden, and pin a rose on it”: hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion
  • “Burn the British and draw one in the dark”: English muffin, toasted, with black coffee
  • “Adam’s ale, hold the hail”: water, no ice
  • “Give it shoes”: an order to go
  • “Honeymoon salad”: “lettuce alone”
  • “Life preservers”: doughnuts
  • “Noah’s boy on bread”: ham sandwich
  • “Put out the lights and cry”: liver and onions
  • “Zeppelins in a fog”: sausages and mashed potatoes

In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “The common faults of American language are an ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.”

World View

In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:

  • bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
  • balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
  • balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
  • bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.

“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”

Beneath the Surface

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In Syntactic Structures (1957), to illustrate the difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one, Noam Chomsky offered the expression Colorless green ideas sleep furiously as an example of a grammatical sentence that’s nonsense.

Naturally, some readers took this as a challenge — within months, students at Stanford had set up a competition to show that the expression could be understood as a meaningful sentence. Here’s one of the prizewinning entries:

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

More entries are here. From David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, 2011.

In a Word

febrifacient
adj. producing fever

The 1895 meeting of the Association of American Physicians saw a sobering report: Abraham Jacobi presented the case of a young man whose temperature had reached 149 degrees.

Nonsense, objected William Henry Welch. Such an observation was impossible. He recalled a similar report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 31, 1891) in which a Dr. Galbraith of Omaha had found a temperature of 171 degrees in a young woman.

“I do not undertake to explain in what way deception was practised, but there is no doubt in my mind that there was deception,” he said. “Such temperatures as those recorded in Dr. Galbraith’s and Dr. Jacobi’s cases are far above the temperature of heat rigor of mammalian muscle, and are destructive of the life of animal cells.”

Jacobi defended himself: Perhaps medicine simply hadn’t developed a theory to account for such things. But another physician told Welch that Galbraith’s case at least had a perfectly satisfactory explanation — another doctor had caught her in “the old-fashioned trick of heating the thermometer by a hot bottle in the bed.”

In a Word

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opitulate
v. to help or aid

subvene
v. to come to the aid of

adjutorious
adj. helpful

deoppilate
v. to remove obstructions

adjuvant
n. a person who helps or provides aid

Language Arts

“Suppose someone to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.”

– Andrew Ingraham, Swain School Lectures, 1903

In a Word

juise
n. judgment; a judicial sentence; penalty

William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.

Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.

In a Word

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nychthemeron
n. a period of 24 consecutive hours

noctidial
adj. lasting for or comprising a night and a day

Type Talk

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In 1881 Puck published four faces assembled from printing characters and announced that its compositors intended to surpass “all the cartoonists that ever walked.”

Six years later, in an essay entitled “For Brevity and Clarity,” Ambrose Bierce offered a character to make irony clear in written text:

2014-04-30-type-talk-2

In April 1969, New York Times interviewer Alden Whitman asked Vladimir Nabokov, “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?” He answered, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”

(Thanks, Justin.)

In a Word

imbonity
n. the reverse of goodness; unkindness

nocument
n. harm, damage; evil

impenitible
adj. incapable of repentance

illachrymable
adj. incapable of weeping