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We’ve been making things awfully hard on spirits. The standard Ouija board lays out the alphabet in two simple rows, which means it’s easy for the dead to tell us about FEEDERS but terribly hard to refer to LAYAWAY, even though these words are equally long.

In the interests of better communication, Eric Iverson made a study of this for the August 2005 issue of Word Ways. Using an image of a Ouija board, he counted the number of pixels that a planchette would have to travel in order to spell out various English words. The results are dismaying: The most exhausting four-letter word, MAMA, requires fully 17 times as much travel as the simple FEED. Longer words are more egalitarian: The hardest 23-letter word, DISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM, requires little more work than the easiest, ELECTROENCEPHALOGRAPHIC. But do dead people have that kind of stamina?

What’s the answer? Iverson experimented with different layouts and found a hexagonal grid that minimizes the average travel distance for a typical word (see the link below). And he found a checkerboard grid that’s 3 percent more efficient than that. Even rearranging the letters on a standard board to ZXVGINAROFUPQ JKWCHTESDLMYB rather than the standard alphabet increases efficiency by about a third. Now maybe we can have some better conversations.

(Eric Iverson, “Traveling Around the Ouija Board,” Word Ways 38:3 [August 2005], 174-177.)

In a Word

adj. that leads by or as by the hand

v. to walk before, as an usher

v. to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around


Items requested in the 2000 Baylor College Linguistic Scavenger Hunt:

  1. the word for “cheese” in Estonian
  2. the longest word in English that uses no letter more than once
  3. a nine-letter English word that has only one syllable
  4. the sound that a dog makes in Swedish
  5. the regional word for “drinking fountain” that’s used in Wisconsin
  6. the language that Jesus spoke
  7. the American equivalent of the British word “ex-directory”
  8. five words that are legal plays in Scrabble and that have only two letters, one of which is “x”
  9. the motto of the Klingon Language Institute
  10. identity of the person who said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

Click for solution …

Tech Talk

Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:

The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.

“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:

Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”

(From The World, May 31, 1893.)

A Narrowing Window

In 2006 I noted this excerpt from Lillie de Hagermann-Lindencrone’s 1912 book In the Courts of Memory:

I sang, and thought I sang very well; but he just looked up into my face with a very quizzical expression, and said, ‘How long have you been singing, Mademoiselle?’

The bolded section is a “pangrammatic window,” a string of naturally occurring text that contains all the letters of the (English) alphabet. This one is 56 letters long.

That was nine years ago. Can we do better? In 2012 a 42-letter example was discovered in Piers Anthony’s novel Cube Route:

‘We are all from Xanth,’ Cube said quickly. ‘Just visiting Phaze. We just want to find the dragon.’

Last year, Jesse Sheidlower wrote a bot that retweets pangrams that it finds on Twitter. Inspired by this, Google software engineer Malcolm Rowe set out to search first Project Gutenberg and then the web for the shortest possible window. Remarkably, he found one of only 36 letters, in a review of the film Magnolia by Todd Ramlow, for PopMatters:

Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain ‘types’ of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.

(The link seems to be down at the moment.)

“I’m pretty impressed by this result,” Rowe writes. “It’s only one letter longer than “The quick brown fox …”, and while that’s not the shortest possible pangram by far, it is one of the more coherent ones.”

(Thanks, Malcolm.)

Ancient Wordplay

The 19th canto of the Sanskrit epic poem Shishupala Vadha is a tour de force of ingenious wordplay, including double meanings, constrained writing, and concrete poetry. The 27th stanza has been called “the most complex and exquisite type of palindrome ever invented” — it produces the same text when read forward, backward, down, or up:

“[That army], which relished battle, contained allies who brought low the bodies and gaits of their various striving enemies, and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments.”

The Babylonian Theodicy is a cuneiform poem of 27 stanzas of 11 lines each. All the sentences in each stanza begin with the same sign, and if these signs are read in order, they produce an acrostic that identifies the author:

a-na-ku sa-ag-gi-il-ki-i-na-am-ub-bi-ib ma-áš-ma-šu ka-ri-bu ša i-li ú šar-ri

“I, Saggil-kīnam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”

See also The Star Gauge. (Thanks, Sujan.)

In a Word

adj. ready for battle; warlike

adj. possessing knowledge

adj. pertaining to a teacher

Among Union Army regiments, the 33rd Illinois became known as the “brains” regiment because it contained so many teachers. “It was stated derisively that the men would not obey orders which were not absolutely correct in syntax and orthography and that men who were discharged from it for mental incapacity, at once secured positions as officers in other regiments.” Many of them came from Illinois State Normal University; of the 97 teachers and pupils on the university’s rolls in 1860-1861, 53 entered the army.

(Charles A. Harper, Development of the Teachers College in the United States, With Special Reference to the Illinois State Normal University, 1935.)

In a Word

n. enrichment

adj. unprofitable

Another puzzle by Yakov Perelman:

“Two fathers gave their two sons some money. One gave his son 150 rubles and the other 100 rubles. When the two sons counted their finances, they found that together they had become richer by only 150 rubles. What is the explanation?”

Click for Answer

In a Word

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.