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).
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.
You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.
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.'”
adj. wearied with tossing about
In his 1772 Treatise on the Art of Decyphering, Philip Thicknesse suggests a scheme for hiding messages in musical compositions:
At the bottom of the page is an example. “If a musick-master be required to play it, he will certainly think it an odd, as well as a very indifferent, composition; but neither he, or any other person, will suspect that the notes convey also the two following harmonious lines from Dr. Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village“:
Near yonder cops where once the garden smil’d,
And still where many a garden-flower grows wild.
Thicknesse suggests that two players might even use this scheme to carry on a conversation in real time. “It is certain that two musicians might, by a very little application, carry on a correspondence with their instruments: they are all in possession of the seven notes, which express a, b, c, d, e, f, g; and know by ear exactly, when either of those notes are toned; and they are only to settle a correspondence of tones, for the remaining part of the alphabet; and thus a little practice, might enable two fiddlers to carry on a correspondence, which would greatly astonish those who did not know how how the matter was conducted. Indeed this is no more than what is called dactlylogy, or talking on the fingers, which I have seen done, and understood as quick, and readily almost, as common conversation.”
Peculiarly English limericks:
There was a young lady named Wemyss,
Who, it semyss, was troubled with dremyss.
She would wake in the night,
And, in terrible fright,
Shake the bemyss of the house with her scremyss.
A pretty school-mistress named Beauchamp,
Said, “These awful boys, how shall I teauchamp?
For they will not behave,
Although I look grave
And with tears in my eyes I beseauchamp.”
There was a professor of Caius
Who measured six feet round the knaius;
He went down to Harwich
Nineteen in a carwich,
And found it a terrible squaius.
There lived a young lady named Geoghegan,
The name is apparently Peoghegan,
She’ll be changing it solquhoun
For that of Colquhoun,
But the date is at present a veoghegan. (W.S. Webb)
An author, by name Gilbert St. John,
Remarked to me once, “Honest t. John,
You really can’t quote
That story I wrote:
My copyright you are infrt. John.” (P.L. Mannock)
See This Sceptred Isle.
adj. worthless, trivial
adj. marked by indifference
adj. desiring strife
On April 18, 1930, in place of its 6:30 p.m. radio news bulletin, the BBC announced, “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” It filled the time with two minutes of piano music.
In 2010 computer programmer William Tunstall-Pedoe sifted 300 million facts about “people, places, business and events” and determined that April 11, 1954, was the single most boring day in the 20th century.
He told the Telegraph, “Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one who might make that claim — Abdullah Atalar, a Turkish academic.
“The irony is, though, that — having done the calculation — the day is interesting for being exceptionally boring. Unless, that is, you are Abdullah Atalar.”
- The clock face on the Marienkirche in Bergen auf Rügen, Germany, has 61 minutes. Does this mean time moves more slowly there — or more quickly?
- To ensure quiet, poet Amy Lowell hired five rooms at every hotel — her own and those on either side, above, and below.
- A perplexing sentence from a letter by Dorothy Osborne, describing shepherdesses in Bedfordshire, May 1653: “They want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world but the knowledge that they are so.”
- OVEREFFUSIVE is a palindrome in Scrabble — its letter values are 141114411141. (Discovered by Susan Thorpe.)
- The sum of the digits of every multiple of 2739726 up to the 72nd is 36. (E.M. Langley, Mathematical Gazette, 1896)
- I’ll bet I have more money in my pocket than you do. (Of course I do — you have no money in my pocket!)
- In 1996 a model airplane enthusiast was operating a remote-controlled plane in Phoenix Park in Dublin when the receiver died and the plane flew off on its own. It flew five miles to the northeast, ran out of fuel, and glided to a landing … on the taxi-way to Runway 28 at Dublin Airport.
(Thanks, Brian and Breffni.)
adj. haughty, arrogant, pretentious, or showy
adj. barbarous, uncivilized
v. to regard as insignificant or of no account
In 1937 photographer Jimmy Sime caught sight of five boys outside Lord’s Cricket Ground during the annual Eton vs. Harrow match. Peter Wagner and Tim Dyson were Harrow students awaiting a ride to the Wagners’ country home in Surrey, and George Salmon, Jack Catlin, and George Young were working-class boys who had spent the morning at the dentist and hoped to earn some money running errands at Lord’s.
Sime’s photo filled three columns of the News Chronicle‘s front page on July 10 under the headline “Every Picture Tells a Story.” It has been reprinted widely since as an illustration of the British class system, sometimes with the title Toffs and Toughs.
In 1998, journalist Geoffrey Levy tracked down Young and Salmon, then in their 70s, and asked whether they’d resented the Harrow boys. “Nah,” Young said. “We had our lives, they had theirs.” Salmon said, “In those days you accepted what you were and what they were, and got on with it.”
It seems a bit arrogant that those of us in the United States refer to ourselves as “Americans” when more than half a billion other people live in the Americas. But what should we call ourselves instead?
“You have properly observed that we can no longer be called Anglo-Americans,” noted Thomas Jefferson in a letter after the Revolution. “That appellation describes now only the inhabitants of Nova Scotia, Canada, &c. I had applied that of Federo Americans to our citizens, as it would not be so decent for us to assume to ourselves the flattering appellation of free Americans.”
What’s a better term? In 1992 Columbia University etymologist Allen Walker Read compiled a list of suggestions that have been made over the years:
- United Statesards
- United Statesese
- United Statesians
- United Statesmen
- United Statesers
- U.S. men
- United Stateans
Perhaps we’re all counterfeit: In early usage “Americans” applied not to European colonists but to the native Indians whose territory they were invading. John Locke wrote in 1671: “So if you should ask an American how old his son is, i.e., what the length of duration was between his birth and this moment, he would … tell you his son was 30 or 40 moons old as it happened.”
(Allen Walker Read, “Derivative Forms From the Name United States,” paper read at the 31st annual Names Institute sponsored by The American Name Society, Baruch College of The City University of New York, May 2, 1992.)
Unfortunate newspaper headlines, collected by Robert Goralski for Press Follies, 1983:
TOWN OKS ANIMAL RULE (Asheville Citizen)
TRAVIS MAN DIES AFTER ALTERATION (Sacramento Bee)
INDIAN OCEAN TALKS (The Plain Dealer)
JUVENILE COURT TO TRY SHOOTING DEFENDANT (Deseret News)
TRAIN ROLLS 0 MILES WITH NO ONE ABOARD (New York Times)
LAWMEN FROM MEXICO BARBECUE GUESTS (San Benito [Texas] News)
FLIES TO RECEIVE NOBEL PRIZE (New York Times)
CARTER TICKS OFF BLACK HELP (San Francisco Examiner)
MAULING BY BEAR LEAVES WOMAN GRATEFUL FOR LIFE (Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, W.Va.)
SILENT TEAMSTER GETS CRUEL PUNISHMENT: LAWYER (The Home News, Brunswick, N.J.)
MANCHESTER MAN BURSTS, HALTS TRAFFIC (Hartford Times)
SKELETON TIED TO MISSING DIPLOMAT (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin)
POET DOESN’T WANT AUDIENCE OF ILLERATES (Raleigh Times)
GLASS EYE IS NO HELP IN IDENTIFYING CORPSE (Deseret News)
FORMER MAN DIES IN CALIFORNIA (Freemont County [Calif.] Chronicle News)
MATH IMPROVEMENT INDICATES LEARNING IS TIED TO TEACHING (New York Times)
PAIR CHARGED WITH BATTERY (Denver Post)
TUNA RECALLED AFTER DEATH (Chicago Daily News)
TWO CONVICTS EVADE NOOSE; JURY HUNG (Oakland Tribune)
JERK INJURES NECK, WINS AWARD (Buffalo News)
TEACHERS’ HEAD GOES OFF TO JAIL (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
SIX SENTENCED TO LIFE IN CLARKSVILLE (Nashville Banner)
POPE LAUNCHES TALKS TO END LONG DIVISION (Pomono Progress Bulletin)
A GRATEFUL NATION BURIES SAM RAYBURN (New York Herald Tribune)
SHOUTING MATCH ENDS TEACHER’S HEARING (Newsday)
DOCTOR TESTIFIES IN HORSE SUIT (Waterbury Republican)
Some are inspired: When the New York Times reported that a mansion-hunting Aristotle Onassis had visited Buster Keaton’s former estate, it chose the headline ARISTOTLE CONTEMPLATING THE HOME OF BUSTER.
n. a death-bringing planet
adj. likely or able to destroy the world
In 2012 an online petition urged the Obama administration to build a Death Star like the one in Star Wars. The campaign amassed 25,000 signatures, enough to require an official response, and it fell to Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the Office of Management and Budget, to reject the project. He gave three reasons:
- The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
- The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
- Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
n. the action of lying down
n. the manner or posture of lying in bed
One afternoon, in mood très gai
Because of paying the gourmet
(I’d taken wine with déjeuner —
A light and lilting Beaujolais —
Plus biscuits, cheese, and pousse-café),
I dared a blazing sun, à pied,
To pay a little visit chez
Miss Janet, who said “You OK?
You may have had a coup de soleil.”
Said I, “I’ve writ a poem, J.,
With no last letter twice in play
And yet the whole thing rhymes with a.”
— Willard R. Espy
(“The trick would, of course, be impossible without using Anglicized French terms.”)
n. a monk living in idleness and self-indulgence