Walter Penney of Greenbelt, Md., offered this poser in the August 1969 issue of Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Below are five groups of English words. Each group appears also in a foreign language. What are the languages?
- aloud, angel, hark, inner, lover, room, taken, wig
- alas, atlas, into, manner, pore, tie, vain, valve
- ail, ballot, enter, four, lent, lit, mire, taller
- banjo, chosen, hippo, pure, same, share, tempo, tendon
- ago, cur, dare, fur, limes, mane, probe, undo
n. a fight between an elephant and a whale
Anthony R. Wagner uses this word in his foreword to G.D. Squibb’s 1959 book The High Court of Chivalry to describe the controversy in early 20th-century England over the right to bear arms:
I therefore soon found myself studying the whole subject with close attention and in time I came to two conclusions. The first was that the original controversy had been an elephantocetomachia, a fight between an elephant and a whale, incapable of decision because the adversaries lived in different elements and could not come to grips. Oswald Barron, a historian, was trying to settle a legal question by reciting history. [A.C.] Fox-Davies, a lawyer, hoped to settle history by quoting law.
Wagner doesn’t claim to have coined it, but I can’t find it anywhere else except in quotations of that passage. That’s a shame — it’s a useful word.
The word bid has vertical symmetry in lowercase and horizontal symmetry in uppercase.
v. to represent by a picture or sculpture
adj. armed with a noose
adj. hanging from a rope
adj. pertaining to the gallows
On Feb. 23, 1885, convicted murderer John Lee of Devon was brought to the scaffold and positioned on the trapdoor. The noose was fitted around his neck, and executioner James Berry pulled the lever.
Two warders tried to force the trapdoor to open under Lee, but they failed. They removed the condemned man and tested the door, and it worked. So they put Lee in position again, and again Berry pulled the lever.
Again nothing happened.
Exasperated, the warders again put Lee aside and set to work on the door, this time with hatchets. When they were satisfied, they returned him to the scaffold, and Berry pulled the lever a third time.
So the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment.
adj. existing, living, or carried out underneath snow
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.
- EMBARGO spelled backward is O GRAB ME.
- The numbers on a roulette wheel add to 666.
- The fourth root of 2143/22 is nearly pi (3.14159265258).
- “A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.” — Aeschylus
Six countries have names that begin with the letter K, and each has a different vowel as the second letter: Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan.
In composing a state map of New York in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company wanted to be sure that competing mapmakers would not simply copy its work. So the company’s founder, Otto G. Lindberg, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, scrambled their initials and placed the fictional town of Agloe at the intersection of two dirt roads in the Catskills north of Roscoe.
Several years later, they discovered Agloe on a Rand McNally map and confronted their competitor. But Rand was innocent: It had got the name from the county government, which had taken it from the Agloe General Store, which now occupied the intersection. The store had taken the name from a map by Esso, which had (apparently) copied it from Lindberg’s map. Agloe had somehow clambered from imagination into reality.
Similarly, in 2001 editors placed a fake word in the New Oxford American Dictionary as a trap for other lexicographers who might steal their material. Fittingly, the word was esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at Dictionary.com (it’s since been taken down), citing Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary.
And as with Agloe, the invention has taken on a life of its own. NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who coined esquivalience, told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
n. an early flower
Already now the Snowdrop dares appear,
The first pale blossom of the unripened year:
As Flora’s breath, by some transforming power,
Had changed an icicle into a flower:
Its name and hue the scentless plant retains
And Winter lingers in its icy veins.
– Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)
In the 19th century, feeling expansive, the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll extended its name to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, meaning “The Church of Mary of White Hazel Pool quite near the rapid whirlpool, the church of Tysilio under a red cave.”
In the same spirit, the gift shop in Llangollen bears the name Ysiopfachgardiauwrthybontdrosyrafonddyfrdwyynllangollen. It means “The little card shop by the bridge over the river Dee in Llangollen.”
n. the distance between two stopping places
Another puzzle by Sam Loyd: Two ferry boats ply the same route between ports on opposite sides of a river. They set out simultaneously from opposite ports, but one is faster than the other, so they meet at a point 720 yards from the nearest shore. When each boat reaches its destination, it waits 10 minutes to change passengers, then begins its return trip. Now the boats meet at a point 400 yards from the other shore. How wide is the river?
“The problem shows how the average person, who follows the cut-and-dried rules of mathematics, will be puzzled by a simple problem that requires only a slight knowledge of elementary arithmetic. It can be explained to a child, yet I hazard the opinion that ninety-nine out of every hundred of our shrewdest businessmen would fail to solve it in a week. So much for learning mathematics by rule instead of common sense which teaches the reason why!”
- Sue, dice, do, to decide us.
- Do Good’s deeds live on? No, Evil’s deeds do, O God.
- Marge let a moody baby doom a telegram.
- No, it can assess an action.
- Poor Dan is in a droop.
- Repel evil as a live leper.
- See few owe fees.
- Niagara, O roar again!
- No, set a maple here, help a mate, son.
- Too far, Edna, we wander afoot.
- “Reviled did I live,” said I, “as evil I did deliver.”
- No, it is opposition.
- Revered now, I live on. O, did I do no evil, I wonder, ever?
- Madame, not one man is selfless; I name not one, madam.
- Draw no dray a yard onward.
- Yawn a more Roman way.
- Doom an evil deed, liven a mood.
- See, slave, I demonstrate yet arts no medieval sees.
J.A. Lindon devised this vignette, which is one long palindrome if words, rather than letters, are taken as the unit: “On radios with noisy speakers everywhere glass and china rattles; waiters, many of one race, move forks and knives, while knives and forks move, race; one of many waiters rattles china and glass, everywhere speakers noisy, with radios on …”
Large word squares are dramatically harder to make than small ones. To date the largest anyone has managed to find are composed of 9-letter words:
Finding a perfect 10×10 word square has been a central goal for wordplay fans for more than 100 years. The task was looking impossible when in 1972 Dmitri Borgmann found an unexpected resource in the African journal of David Livingstone, whose entry for Sept. 26, 1872, reads:
Through forest, along the side of a sedgy valley. Cross its head-water, which has rust of iron in it, then west and by south. The forest has very many tsetse. Zebras calling loudly, and Senegal long claw in our camp at dawn, with its cry, ‘O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.’
This is exactly what was needed. Given a pen, the yellow-bellied longclaw, Macronyx flavigaster, could have drawn for Livingstone a perfect 10×10 word square:
We ought to consult other species more often. Any longclaw could have given us this contribution — indeed, this is the only word square the bird is capable of making!
n. an erroneous doctrine or tenet
“The phrases men are accustomed to repeat incessantly, end by becoming convictions and ossify the organs of intelligence.” — Goethe
“What fresh views would we acquire if we could for once eliminate from our capital of truisms all that is not intrinsic but has accrued through frequent repetition?” — G.C. Lichtenberg
“We are powerfully imprisoned in these Dark Ages simply by the terms in which we have been conditioned to think.” — Buckminster Fuller
“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as ‘necessities of thought,’ ‘a priori givens,’ etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors.” — Albert Einstein
“It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” — Alfred North Whitehead
adj. producing darkness
AMBIDEXTROUS is ambidextrous — its first half draws on the first half of the alphabet, its second on the second.
Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:
Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.
If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.
It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.
n. a duel
In 1842, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, published a letter in a Springfield newspaper criticizing the performance of the state’s auditor, James Shields. Shields, quick to anger, challenged Lincoln to a duel, and the two met on an island in the Mississippi River. As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the weapon, and he requested long cavalry broadswords. As he stood 7 inches taller than Shields, this gave him an enormous advantage, which he demonstrated by cutting a branch above Shields’ head. Accounts differ as to how the auditor responded — he either laughed or quailed — but the two agreed not to fight. Lincoln appears to have been embarrassed by the whole affair, and declined to discuss it in later years.
n. a lover of knowledge
n. ignorant; lacking knowledge
n. a lover of the truth
“Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.” — Sydney Smith
From a letter from Ben Franklin to John Lining of South Carolina, March 18, 1755:
I find a frank acknowledgment of one’s ignorance is not only the easiest way to get rid of a difficulty, but the likeliest way to obtain information, and therefore I practice it: I think it an honest policy. Those who affect to be thought to know every thing, and so undertake to explain every thing, often remain long ignorant of many things that others could and would instruct them in, if they appeared less conceited.
Write out the phrase “expect the devil.”
Extract the Roman numerals: eXpeCt the DeVIL
Add these: D (500) + C (100) + L (50) + X (10) + V (5) + I (1)
The total is 666.
adj. confining to the bed (“a lectual disease”)
n. a medicine to be licked, such as a cough drop
n. a childless woman
n. a newborn child’s cry
adj. giving birth to a god
In 1964 Canadian writer Graeme Gibson bought a parrot in Mexico. The bird, which Gibson named Harold Wilson, was bright and affectionate at first, but he seemed to grow lonely in the dark Canadian winter, so in the spring Gibson made arrangements to donate him to the Toronto Zoo. At the aviary Gibson carried Harold into the cage that had been prepared for him, placed him on a perch, said his goodbyes, and turned to go.
“Then Harold did something that astonished me. For the very first time, and in exactly the voice my kids might have used, he called out ‘Daddy!’ When I turned to look at him he was leaning towards me expectantly. ‘Daddy’, he repeated.
“I don’t remember what I said to him. Something about him being happier there, that he’d soon make friends. The kind of things you say to kids when you abandon them at camp. But outside the aviary I could still hear him calling ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ as we walked away. I was shattered to discover that Harold knew my name, and that he did so because he’d identified himself with my children.
“I now believe he’d known it all along, but was using it — for the first time — out of desperation. Both Konrad Lorenz and Bernd Heinrich mention instances of birds calling out the private names of intimates when threatened by serious danger. I am no longer surprised by such information. We think of our captive birds as our pets, but perhaps we are theirs as well.”
(From Gibson’s Perpetual Motion, 1982.)
n. one addicted to immoderate tea-drinking