adj. abusive, foul-mouthed, reviling
In his Recollections of the Civil War, Charles Anderson Dana called Union general Andrew Atkinson Humphreys “one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.” “The men of distinguished and brilliant profanity in the war were General Sherman and General Humphreys — I could not mention any others that could be classed with them. General Logan also was a strong swearer, but he was not a West Pointer: he was a civilian. Sherman and Humphreys would swear to make everything blue when some dispatch had not been delivered correctly or they were provoked.”
In Rex v. Sparling (1722), a leather dresser named James Sparling was alleged in the course of 10 days to “profanely swear fifty-four oaths, and profanely curse one hundred and sixty curses, contra formam statuti.” His conviction was overturned because the charge sheet had failed to list them. “For what is a profane oath or curse is a matter of law, and ought not to be left to the judgment of the witness … it is a matter of great dispute among the learned, what are oaths and what curses.”
When in 1985 a man named Callahan called a California highway patrolman a “fucking asshole,” California Court of Appeal Justice Gerald Brown referred to this phrase as the “Callahan epithet” to avoid having to repeat it continuously, “which arguably would assist its passage into parlor parlance.” And he reversed Callahan’s conviction:
A land as diverse as ours must expect and tolerate an infinite variety of expression. What is vulgar to one may be lyric to another. Some people spew four-letter words as their common speech such as to devalue its currency; their repetition dulls the senses; Billingsgate thus becomes commonplace. Not everyone can be a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan or a Joseph A. Ball. …
Fifty years ago the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ were as shocking to the sensibilities of some people as the Callahan epithet is to others today. The first word in Callahan’s epithet has many meanings. When speaking about coitus, not everyone can be an F.E. Smith (later Earl of Birkenhead) who, in his speech in 1920 in the House of Commons on the Matrimonial Causes Act, referred to ‘that bond by which nature in its ingenious telepathy has contrived to secure and render agreeable the perpetuation of the species.’
Hamlet’s nunnery soliloquy in “Americanese,” by critic and satirist A.E. Wilson:
To quit or not to quit; that’s what I’m up against
Ought I to stick the darn thing out
And let old man Fortune make a monkey of me
Or take a crack against this brand of bellyaches
And swipe the lot of them? To pass out; to sleep
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The katzenjammer and all the other things that give us the willies.
I’ll tell the world it would be better. To pass out; to hit the hay;
To hit the hay; perhaps to dream: Gee! that would be tough;
For while we’re sleeping in the boneyard what dreams may come when we have handed in our cheques,
That makes you think: There’s the respect
That makes your life just one long tough break
For who would stand for a kick in the pants or a sock in the jaw
The panning of some ritzy guy
The pain in the neck when some frail has given you the icy mitt
When he might stage a fade out with a bare rib tickler …
From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982. I’m not sure when Wilson wrote it — to judge from some of the expressions, I think it might be from the 1930s.
08/26/2015 Reader Ed Kitson sent some similar pieces: an Australian ancestor from 1917, travesties from 1810 and 1849, and an 1822 ditty. The mother of all parodies is still the Skinhead Hamlet, mentioned here in 2012 and still stupendously NSFW.
‘Twas the nocturnal segment of the diurnal period preceding the annual Yuletide celebration, and throughout our place of residence, kinetic activity was not in evidence among possessors of this potential, including that species of domestic rodent knows as Mus musculus.
Hosiery was meticulously suspended from the forward edge of the wood-burning caloric apparatus, pursuant to our anticipatory pleasure regarding an imminent visitation from an eccentric philanthropist among whose folkloric appellations is the honorific title of St. Nicholas.
The prepubescent siblings, comfortably ensconced in their respective accommodations of repose, were experiencing subconscious visual hallucinations of variegated fruit confections moving rhythmically through their cerebrums.
My conjugal partner and I, attired in our nocturnal head coverings, were about to take slumbrous advantage of the hibernal darkness when upon the avenaceous exterior portion of the grounds there ascended such a cacophony of dissonance that I felt compelled to arise with alacrity from my place of repose for the purpose of ascertaining the precise source thereof.
Hastening to the casement, I forthwith opened the barriers sealing this fenestration, noting thereupon that the lunar brilliance without, reflected as it was on the surface of a recent crystalline precipitation, might be said to rival that of the solar meridian itself — thus permitting my incredulous optical sensory organs to behold a miniature airborne runnered conveyance drawn by eight diminutive specimens of the genus Rangifer, piloted by a minuscule aged chauffer so ebullient and nimble that it became instantly apparent to me that he was indeed our anticipated caller.
With his ungulate motive power travelling at what may possibly have been more vertiginous velocity than patriotic alar predators, he vociferated loudly, expelled breath musically through contracted labia, and addressed each of the octet by his or her respective cognomen — “Now Dasher, now Dancer …” et al. — guiding them to the uppermost exterior level of our abode, through which structure I could readily distinguish the concatenations of each of the 32 cloven pedal extremities.
As I retracted my cranium from its erstwhile location, and was performing a 180-degree pivot, our distinguished visitant achieved — with utmost celerity and via a downward leap — entry by way of the smoke passage.
He was clad entirely in animal pelts soiled by the ebony residue from the oxidations of carboniferous fuels which had accumulated on the walls thereof. His resemblance to a street vendor I attributed largely to the plethora of assorted playthings which he bore dorsally in a commodious cloth receptacle.
His orbs were scintillant with reflected luminosity, while his submaxillary dermal indentations gave every evidence of engaging amiability. The capillaries of his malar regions and nasal appurtenance were engorged with blood that suffused the subcutaneous layers, the former approximating the coloration of Albion’s floral emblem, the latter that of the Prunus avium, or sweet cherry.
His amusing sub- and supralabials resembled nothing so much as a common loop knot, and their ambient hirsute facial adornment appeared like small tabular and columnar crystals of frozen water. Clenched firmly between his incisors was a smoking piece whose gray fumes, forming a tenuous ellipse about his occiput, were suggestive of a decorative seasonal circlet of holly. His visage was wider than it was high, and when he waxed audibly mirthful, his corpulent abdominal region undulated in the manner of impectinated fruit syrup in a hemispherical container.
He was, in short, neither more nor less than an obese, jocund, superannuated gnome, the optical perception of whom rendered me visibly frolicsome despite every effort to refrain from so being.
By rapidly lowering and then raising one eyelid and rotating his head slightly to one side, he indicated that trepidation on my part was groundless. Without utterance and with dispatch, he commenced filling the aforementioned appended hosiery with various articles of merchandise extracted from a dorsally transported cloth receptacle. Upon completion of this task, he executed an abrupt about-face, placed a single manual digit in lateral juxtaposition to his olfactory organ, inclined his cranium forward in a gesture of leave-taking, and forthwith affected his egress by renegotiating (in reverse) the smoke passage.
He then propelled himself in a short vector onto his conveyance, directed a musical expulsion of air through his contracted oral sphincter to the antlered quadrupeds of burden, and proceeded to soar aloft in a movement hitherto observable chiefly among the seed-bearing portions of a common weed. But I overheard his parting exclamation, audible immediately prior to his vehiculation beyond the limits of visibility: “Ecstatic yuletide to the plenary constituency, and to that selfsame assemblage, my sincerest wishes for a salubriously beneficial and gratifyingly pleasurable period between sunset and dawn!”
adj. secret, private
“Special Correspondence. I learn from a very high authority, whose name I am not at liberty to mention, (speaking to me at a place which I am not allowed to indicate and in a language which I am forbidden to use) — that Austria-Hungary is about to take a diplomatic step of the highest importance. What this step is, I am forbidden to say. But the consequences of it — which unfortunately I am pledged not to disclose — will be such as to effect results which I am not free to enumerate.” — Stephen Leacock, The Hohenzollerns in America, 1919
adj. devouring knives
John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.
Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”
Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp knives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).
Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes — Cummings’ contribution to medical science.
n. a love of solitude
n. a dislike of social intercourse (“want of love to mankind” — Johnson)
n. a hater of strangers
Bill Nucker once told me that the sober response to a young wife’s obvious query about the small tear in his trousers acquired from a see-saw whilst scooping up the small son who had just fallen, giggling, from it in startlement at a response to his ocarina playing from a passing bird was: No, ma’am, this is a teetotaler’s teeter-totter ‘tater-tooter tweeter twitter titter tottered tot toter tatter.
— Charles W. Bostick, Word Ways, February 1977
If you move each of its letters to the mirror position in the alphabet (A <-> Z, B <-> Y, etc.), WIZARD becomes DRAZIW.
A word-level palindrome:
“Is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?”
There once was a ,cal fellow,
Who grew .ically mellow;
With a — he was gone
To the town of :
To write for a sheet that was yellow.
She was wooed by a handsome young Dr.,
Who one day in his arms tightly lr.;
But straightway he swore
He would do so no more,
Which the same, it was plain, greatly shr.
A boy at Sault Ste. Marie
Said, “To spell I will not agree
Till they learn to spell ‘Soo’
Without any u
Or an a or an l or a t.”
There was an old maid from Duquesne
Who the rigor of mortis did fuesne;
She came to with a shout,
Saying: “Please let me out;
This coffin will drive me insuesne.”
— Stanton Vaughn, ed., Limerick Lyrics, 1904
Seven ways to pronounce ough:
A letter to the London Times, Sept. 20, 1934:
‘A rough-coated dough-faced ploughman strode coughing and hiccoughing through the streets of Scarborough’ used to be set as a spelling-test at my prep school at Crowborough in the middle nineties.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
“If the English language made any sense,” wrote Doug Larson, “lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”
adj. of the nature of an obstacle
v. to put an obstacle in the way of; to obstruct
v. to enclose between walls, to wall in
v. to wall round
In Ward v. Ward, a North Carolina court’s entire finding rested on the presence of a single comma. The will of Alvin T. Ward read:
My Trustee is directed to pay such amounts of and from the income generated by said trust, and from the principal of said trust if he deems same to be advisable, to, for, or on account of my said wife in quarterly installments or more frequently if he deems advisable and if practicable.
Is the trustee required to pay the income to Ward’s wife, or can he use his discretion? The income payments are required, ruled the court: The comma after “said trust” shows that only the distribution of the principal is left to the trustee’s judgment.
In Henderson v. State, Jacob Henderson’s 1984 burglary conviction in Mississippi was reversed in part because of a misplaced period:
The Grand Jurors for the State of Mississippi, … upon their oaths present: That Jacob Henderson … on the 15th day of May, A.D., 1982.
This is a “non-sentence,” noted the court. “The unmistakable period after 1982 is used by astute defense counsel to nail down the point — that the indictment fails to charge that Jacob Henderson did anything on May 15, 1982.” (This whole indictment is a notorious trainwreck.)
And in People v. Vasquez, a New York court disregarded an affidavit and dismissed a complaint because a misplaced comma made it unclear whether a key affidavit was hearsay:
“It may be that the confusion [about the affidavit] arises from the typographical error of placing a comma before the expression ‘upon information and belief,'” wrote the court. “Had the comma not existed, the entire expression ‘and that the assertion upon information and belief’ would have referred back to the earlier mentioned accusatory instruments so as to render the affidavit non-hearsay.”
adj. speaking learnedly
Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama Pippa Passes, source of the famous lines “God’s in His heaven — All’s right with the world,” ends on a strange note:
But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary inquired delicately how Browning had settled on the word twats, the poet indicated a 1660 rhyme called “Vanity of Vanities”: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.” There the word had been intended as a dismissive insult, but Browning had taken it seriously. Today’s OED still cites Browning’s usage, noting that he’d used the word “erroneously” “under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.”
Editor James A.H. Murray later complained, “Browning constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning. He has added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary.”
adj. full of hail
From a letter from Adam Sedgwick to his niece Fanny Hicks, July 23, 1846:
The miserable damp weather made me rheumatic and low-spirited, so I nursed one day in Carnarvon and then drove to Pwllheli. What a charming name! In order to pronounce the first part (Pwll), you must blow out your cheeks just as you do when puffing at a very obstinate candle; then you must rapidly and cunningly put your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind the fore teeth, and blow hard between your cheeks and your tongue, holding your tongue quite steady all the while, as a man does a spade just before he is going to give it a good thrust with his right foot. With such a beautiful direction you cannot fail to pronounce Pwll quite like a genuine Celt. Should the word be Bwlch, take care to observe the previous directions, only, in addition, while the wind is whistling between your rigid tongue (sticking forwards spade-fashion), and your distended cheeks, contrive by way of a finale to give a noise with your throat such as you make when an intrusive fishbone is sticking in it.
He added, “If you put off writing for a day or two, why then address me at Post Office, Machynlleth, North Wales. … yn is sounded as the grunt given by a broken-winded pavier.”
n. intellectual or social pretension or affectation; pseudo-intellectual speech, writing, debate, etc.
adj. pretentiously or affectedly literary
n. a learned fool
O to scuttle from the battle and to settle on an atoll far from brutal mortal neath a wattle portal!
To keep little mottled cattle and to whittle down one’s chattels and not hurtle after brittle yellow metal!
To listen, non-committal, to the anecdotal local tittle-tattle on a settle round the kettle,
Never startled by a rattle more than betel-nuts a-prattle or the myrtle-petals’ subtle throttled chortle!
But I’ll bet that what’ll happen if you footle round an atoll is you’ll get in rotten fettle living totally on turtle, nettles, cuttle-fish or beetles, victuals fatal to the natal élan-vital,
And hit the bottle.
I guess I’d settle
For somewhere ethical and practical like Bootle.
— Justin Richardson
In illustrating his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling hid messages in the runic characters accompanying some drawings. The tusk above illustrates “How the First Letter Was Written”:
Left side: “This is the stori of Taffimai all ritten out on an old tusk. If u begin at the top left hand corner and go on to the right u can see for urself things as the happened.”
Right side: “The reason that I spell so queerli is becase there are not enough letters in the Runic alphabet for all the ourds that I ouant to use to u o beloved.”
Bottom (barely visible here): “This is the identical tusk on ouich the tale of Taffimai was ritten and etched bi the author.”
The initial “H” at the start of the “Cat That Walked by Himself” hides another message using the same characters: “I, Rudiard Kipling, drew this, but because there was no mutton bone in the house I faked the anatomi from memori.”
“Are these really Runic letters or just an alphabet that Kipling made up for fun?” asked Maj. B.J. Bewley in the Kipling Journal in January 1928. “I think the chief interest lies in the almost boyish pleasure the author plainly took in writing in these strange characters. He must have done it entirely for his own amusement.”
What’s unusual about this limerick?
There was a young lady of Riga,
Who went for a ride on a tiger,
They came back from their ride
With the lady inside
And a smile on the face of the tiger.
It remains a limerick when translated into Latin:
Puella Rigensis ridebat,
Quam tigris in tergo vehebat,
Risusque cum tigre manebat.
Ronald Knox found that the same is true of this one:
There was a young man of Devizes,
Whose ears were of different sizes;
The one that was small
Was no use at all,
But the other won several prizes.
Visas erat; huic geminarum
Dispar modus auricularum:
Minor haec nihili;
Iam fecerat altera clarum.
adj. having large ears
adj. having a large belly
adj. having long feet
adj. “That resembles the Sciapodes; having very large feet.”
In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like “The ears are too length” and “He has spit in my coat.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Carolino’s phrasebook, which Mark Twain called “supreme and unapproachable.”
We’ll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon and puzzle over why a man places an ad before robbing a bank.
Sources for our feature on Pedro Carolino’s disastrous phrasebook:
(This edition, like many, incorrectly names José da Fonseca as a coauthor. Fonseca was the author of the Portuguese-French phrasebook that Carolino used for the first half of his task. By all accounts that book is perfectly competent, and Fonseca knew nothing of Carolino’s project; Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the byline to lend some credibility to his own book.)
Carolino’s misadventure inspired some “sequels” by other authors:
English as She Is Wrote (1883)
English as She Is Taught (1887)
As long as we’re at it, here’s Monty Python’s “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch:
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
Some Morse code “inversions,” sent in by reader Dave Lawrence:
ADMITTED / TIZZY ·- -·· -- ·· - - · -·· (- ·· --·· --·· -·--)
ALLOTTED / TROPHY ·- ·-·· ·-·· --- - - · -·· (- ·-· --- ·--· ···· -·--)
ANIMATED / NAMELY ·- -· ·· -- ·- - · -·· (-· ·- -- · ·-·· -·--)
ATTENTION / DRYEST ·- - - · -· - ·· --- -· (-·· ·-· -·-- · ··· -)
ATTESTED / BONY ·- - - · ··· - · -·· (-··· --- -· -·--)
DEMENTED / JURY -·· · -- · -· - · -·· (·--- ··- ·-· -·--)
DETESTED / AGONY -·· · - · ··· - · -·· (·- --· --- -· -·--)
EMBITTER / DEMOUNT · -- -··· ·· - - · ·-· (-·· · -- --- ··- -· -)
ENTIRETY / COPED, TROWEL · -· - ·· ·-· · - -·-- (-·-· --- ·--· · -··)
ESTEEMED / TOADY · ··· - · · -- · -·· (- --- ·- -·· -·--)
ETERNITY / YAWNED · - · ·-· -· ·· - -·-- (-·-- ·- ·-- -· · -··)
EXTREMEST / TAXATION · -··- - ·-· · -- · ··· - (- ·- -··- ·- - ·· --- -·)
FINNIEST / TYCOON ··-· ·· -· -· ·· · ··· - (- -·-- -·-· --- --- -·)
IDENTITY / GORGED ·· -·· · -· - ·· - -·-- (--· --- ·-· --· · -··)
IMPACTED / GRANARY ·· -- ·--· ·- -·-· - · -·· (--· ·-· ·- -· ·- ·-· -·--)
INTERNEE / GYRO ·· -· - · ·-· -· · · (--· -·-- ·-· ---)
MEDIATED / FOGEY -- · -·· ·· ·- - · -·· (··-· --- --· · -·--)
NAVIGATE / POPPA -· ·- ···- ·· --· ·- - · (·--· --- ·--· ·--· ·-)
NINETEEN / ATTEMPT -· ·· -· · - · · -· (·- - - · -- ·--· -)
NOSTALGIA / LAMENTATION -· --- ··· - ·- ·-·· --· ·· ·- (·-·· ·- -- · -· - ·- - ·· --- -·)
NOVELIST / LAMPOON -· --- ···- · ·-·· ·· ··· - (·-·· ·- -- ·--· --- --- -·)
STATEWIDE / OREGANO ··· - ·- - · ·-- ·· -·· · (--- ·-· · --· ·- -· ---)
TEAMSTER / ADAMANT - · ·- -- ··· - · ·-· (·- -·· ·- -- ·- -· -)
TEETERED / EMPTY - · · - · ·-· · -·· (· -- ·--· - -·--)
TEETERING / ANGORA - · · - · ·-· ·· -· --· (·- -· --· --- ·-· ·-)
TITTERED / PANTY - ·· - - · ·-· · -·· (·--· ·- -· - -·--)
TOUGHEST / SPITTOON - --- ··- --· ···· · ··· - (··· ·--· ·· - - --- --- -·)
TUCKERED / PARTWAY - ··- -·-· -·- · ·-· · -·· (·--· ·- ·-· - ·-- ·- -·--)
UPMARKET / QUICKEN ··- ·--· -- ·- ·-· -·- · - (--·- ··- ·· -·-· -·- · -·)
WHITENED / DOORMAT ·-- ···· ·· - · -· · -·· (-·· --- --- ·-· -- ·- -)
WINNOWED / NAKEDLY ·-- ·· -· -· --- ·-- · -·· (-· ·- -·- · -·· ·-·· -·--)
Also, and apropos of nothing, every date this week is a palindrome when written in the American month-day-year format:
This continues into next Tuesday. (Thanks, Lane.)
Unusual names recorded in the American South by University of Florida linguist Thomas Pyles, 1986:
Oleander Lafayette Fitzgerald III
Early Hawaiian McKinnon
Earl Curl Jr.
Rev. Fay de Sha
Esperanza Le Socke
Pamela Gay Day
Staff-Sgt. Mehogany Brewer
Fawn Grey Trawick Dunkle
Martha Magdalene Toot
Cowboy Pink Williams served as lieutenant governor of Oklahoma from 1955 to 1959. And “The children of Mr. Stanford Bardwell, a realtor and a graduate of Louisiana State University, and his wife Loyola, are Stanford, Jr., Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Auburn, and the twins Duke and T’lane. When the Bardwells go on holiday they travel in a specially equipped school bus called the ‘Collegiate Caravan.'”