Legerdemain

Apart from being mathematically true, ONE + TWELVE = TWO + ELEVEN is also famously an anagram — the same group of letters appears on each side of the expression.

In numerical form (1 + 12 = 2 + 11) it’s both an anagram and a palindrome — the same numerals appear on either side of the equal sign, and in opposite order.

Expressed in Roman numerals (I + XII = II + XI) it remains an anagram and a palindrome — again, the same numerals appear on both sides, and in reverse order.

In a square font the equation remains the same when each character is turned upside down:

legerdemain 1

In Word Ways, contributor Anil points out a further coincidence: Write the original equation in a square font, turn it upside down, and twist the first plus sign 45 degrees to make a multiplication sign:

legerdemain 2

A similar trick works in Roman numerals: Start with the original expression, turn it upside down, and change the plus signs to minus. If IIX is taken as 8, then we get another valid expression:

I + XII = II + XI
IX + II = IIX + I
IX – II = IIX – I

(Anil, “One + Twelve = Two + Eleven,” Word Ways 35:4 [July 2012], 308. See also Spanagrams and Immortal Truth.)

Self-Service

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A Mrs. Harris published this verse in Golden Days on Oct. 10, 1885:

He squanders recklessly his cash
In cultivating a mustache;
A shameless fop is Mr. Dude,
Vain, shallow, fond of being viewed.
‘Tis true that he is quite a swell —
A smile he has for every belle;
What time he has to spare from dress
Is taken up with foolishness —
A witless youth, whose feeble brain
Incites him oft to chew his cane.
Leave dudes alone, nor ape their ways,
Male readers of these Golden Days.

It reads so naturally that it’s surprising to find that it contains a double acrostic: Taking the fourth letter of each line spells out QUANTITATIVE, and taking the last letter spells out HEEDLESSNESS.

Ready-Made

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Australia was named before it was discovered. Ancient geographers had supposed that land in the north must be balanced by land in the south — Aristotle had written, “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole” — and Romans told legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an “unknown land of the South,” more than a millennium before Europeans first sighted the continent.

In 1814 the British explorer Matthew Flinders suggested applying the speculative name, Terra Australis, to the actual place — and in a footnote he wrote, “Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”

Coming and Going

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Edmund Wilson’s 1948 poem “The Pickerel Pond” has a novel feature — backward rhymes:

The lake lies with never a ripple
A lymph to lave sores from a leper
The sand white as salt in an air
That has filtered and tamed every ray;

Below limpid water, those lissome
Scrolleries scribbled by mussels
The floating dropped feathers of gulls;
A leech like a lengthening slug

That shrinks at a touch, ink and orange;
A child’s wrecked Rio Janeiro,
One fortress of which flies a reed
The cleft and quick prints of a deer …

Each pair of line endings (ripple/leper, air/ray) reverse one another in pronunciation, reflecting the pond’s mirror-like surface. They’re called amphisbaenic rhymes, after the amphisbaena, a Greek monster whose two heads allow it to move in either direction. Wilson’s poem contains 70 twisting stanzas of such rhymes.

Seeing and Saying

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New York radio station WQXR used to inflict this pronunciation test on prospective announcers — try reading it aloud:

The old man with the flaccid face and dour expression grimaced when asked if he were conversant with zoology, mineralogy, or the culinary arts. ‘Not to be secretive,’ he said, ‘I may tell you that I’d given precedence to the study of genealogy. But since my father’s demise, it has been my vagary to remain incognito because of an inexplicable, lamentable, and irreparable family schism. It resulted from a heinous crime, committed at our domicile by an impious scoundrel. To err is human … but this affair was so grievous that only my inherent acumen and consummate tact saved me.’

It’s a minefield. In Another Almanac of Words at Play, Willard R. Espy lists the pronunciations that were considered correct:

flaccid     FLACK-sid         inexplicable      in-EX-plic-able
dour        DOO-er            lamentable        LAM-entable
grimaced    gri-MACED         irreparable       ear-REP-arable
conversant  KON-ver-sant      schism            SIZ-m
zoology     zoh-OL-o-ji       heinous           HAY-nus
mineralogy  miner-AL-o-ji     domicile          DOMM-i-sil
culinary    KEW-li-ner-y      impious           IM-pee-yus
secretive   see-KEE-tiv       err               ur
precedence  pre-SEED-ens      grievous          GREEV-us
genealogy   jan-e-AL-o-ji     inherent          in-HERE-ent
demise      de-MIZE           acumen            a-KEW-men
vagary      va-GAIR-y         consummate (adj.) kon-SUMM-it
incognito   in-KOG-ni-toe

Getting 20 of the 25 “stumpers” right was considered excellent. But that was 40 years ago, and even at the time Espy found 21 dictionary listings that accepted different pronunciations. “So not to worry when you don’t sound like WQXR,” he wrote. “One man’s AB-do-men is another man’s ab-DOUGH-men.”

Pas de Deux

In Pale Fire, Nabokov notes an “absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant” verbal curiosity:

A newspaper account of a Russian tsar’s coronation had, instead of korona (crown), the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically ‘corrected,’ it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow).

“The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian koronavoronakorova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet,” he wrote. “I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation.”