Coming and Going

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

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.”

For Short

Telegraph companies generally charged by the length of a message, so enterprising customers started using codes in place of common phrases. Here are some sample codes, from the ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code of 1901:

Nalezing – Do only what is absolutely necessary
Nalime – Will only do what is absolutely necessary
Nallary – It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage
Naloopen – It is not absolutely necessary, but well worth the outlay

If you and I both have a copy of the code book, then I can send you the word Nallary in place of the phrase “It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage” — a savings of 10 words or 51 characters without any loss of information.

Most of these code books are pretty hard-headed (here’s another), but there’s a wonderful exception — Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, “Adapted Especially to the Use of Everyone Connected in Any Way with the Theatrical Business”:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filar – Ballet girls
Filaria – Burlesque opera
Filature – Burlesque opera company
File – Burlesque people
Filefish – Chorus girl
Filial – Chorus girls
Filially – Chorus girls who are
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing
Filicoid – Chorus girls who can sing
Filiform – Chorus man
Filigree – Chorus men
Filing – Chorus men who can sing
Fillet – Chorus people
Fillip – Chorus people who can sing
Filly – Comic opera
Film – Comic opera company
Filler – Comic opera people
Filtering – Desirable chorus girl

It’s in the public domain, but I haven’t been able to find the full text online — I’m getting this from Craig Bauer’s (excellent) Secret History: The Story of Cryptology. I’ll update this post if I manage to find more.

Some Tidy Anagrams,_Lismore,_MN.jpg


Darryl Francis finds that LISMORE, MINNESOTA is an anagram of REMAIN MOTIONLESS.

“There is a well-known story in The Spectator, of a lover of Lady Mary Boon, who, after six months’ hard study, contrived to anagrammatize her as Moll Boon; and upon being told by his mistress, indignant at such a metamorphosis, that her name was Mary Bohun, he went mad.” — William Sandys, ed., Specimens of Macaronic Poetry, 1831

In 1971, Word Ways encouraged its readers to find the anagram that this sad man had worked so hard for. What they found was MOLDY BALLOON.

Something Borrowed

Just a fragment: During Japan’s U Go offensive into India in 1944, British officer Tony “Raj” Fowler would reportedly inspire his Indian troops by reciting passages from Shakespeare in Urdu before leading them in charges against the Japanese trenches. From Arthur Swinson’s Kohima, 2015:

Here they waited, with the Punjabis,who were to attack the D.I.S., on their left. The latter were in great heart, recorded Major Arthur Marment, and ‘anxious to avenge the death of the large number of the Queens lost a few days previously’. Their adjutant, Major R.A.J. Fowler, had translated a short passage from Shakespeare’s King John into Urdu — ‘Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue’ — which became: ‘Dunia ka char kunion se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko assosi denge.’

“This, says Marment, ‘had a most tremendous effect on the troops’.”

In a Word

n. a field of bloodshed

n. the action of snatching something away

n. a means of defence; a safeguard

Strange freaks these round shot play! We saw a man coming up from the rear with his full knapsack on, and some canteens of water held by the straps in his hands. He was walking slowly, and with apparent unconcern, though the iron hailed around him. A shot struck the knapsack, and it and its contents flew thirty yards in every direction; the knapsack disappeared like an egg thrown spitefully against the rock. The soldier stopped, and turned about in puzzled surprise, put up one hand to his back to assure himself that the knapsack was not there, and then walked slowly on again unharmed, with not even his coat torn.

— Franklin Aretas Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1908