Language

Roll Call

In 1938, University of North Carolina folklorist Arthur Palmer Hudson published a collection of unusual African-American names, most gathered through personal interviews but others “unimpeachably attested” by state bureaus of vital statistics:

Comer Mercantile Company
Castor Oil
Morphine
Dr. Root Beer
Oleomargarine
Artificial Flowers
Elevator
Dill Pickle
League of Nations
Toledo Ohio
Positive Wasserman (after a hospital wrist tag)
Jesus Hoover Christ (“the family was a beneficiary of the Red Cross when Hoover was director”)
Jesse James Outlaw
James All Virtuous
Sandy Alexander Soap Fish and Tobacco Box
Susan Anna Banana Green Doosenberry Watson
Rosa Belle Locust Hill North Carolina Beauty Spot Evans
Frank Harrison President of the United States Eats His Lasses Candy and Swings on Every Gate Williams
Pneumonia and Neuralgia (twins)
Flat Foot Floogie
State Normal and Industrial College (“Snic”)
No Parking
Lake Erie Banks
Cleopatra Blue

In the 1850s, a Stanly County, N.C., slave was named Sunday May Ninth “to guarantee the bearer’s remembrance of his birthday.” “This name proved useful to the ex-slave in establishing his status with reference to a monetary claim.”

Hudson seems to have been enchanted by unusual names generally — among the UNC alumni he found a white student named Shively Dewilder Accus Baccus Dulcido.

(Arthur Palmer Hudson, “Some Curious Negro Names,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 2:4, December 1938, pp. 179-193.)

A Latin Spoonerism

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schopenhauer.jpg

Arthur Schopenhauer was so ill-tempered that he once assaulted an elderly seamstress for talking outside his door.

A court ordered him to pay her 15 thalers every quarter for the rest of her life.

When she finally passed away 20 years later, he wrote in his account book Obit anus, abit onus — Latin for “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted.”

Eh?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Nelson.jpg

As the Battle of Trafalgar commenced, Horatio Nelson famously signalled the English fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Actually that message arose only due to a last-minute conference on the flagship, as signal officer John Pasco recalled after the battle:

His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, ‘Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,’ and he added, ‘You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.’ I replied, ‘If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the word expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.’ His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’

The days of such clear language are over — in an August 1939 letter to the London Times, A.P. Herbert wrote:

Alas, the strong silent Services have been corrupted, too. If Nelson had to repeat his famous signal today it would probably run thus:–

England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issue and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation-groups.

Misc

  • AWE and WONDER are synonyms, but AWFUL and WONDERFUL are antonyms.
  • Abraham Lincoln is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
  • Ravel described Boléro as “a piece for orchestra without music.”
  • “In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” — Coleridge

In a Word

oche
n. the line behind which darts players must stand

aimcrier
n. a person who cries “Aim!” to an archer; an applauder or encourager

Double Duty

From Stuart Kidd in the May 2003 Word Ways:

CANON is a synonym for ORDINANCE, and CANNON is a synonym for ORDNANCE.

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Houdini_and_Lincoln.jpg

transpicuous
adj. transparent

In 1922, magician Harry Price published “Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, showing that so-called “spirit photographs” could be created using simple double exposures. In support of the exposé, Harry Houdini had himself photographed with Abraham Lincoln.

Close Enough

In 2004, Livermore, Calif., paid Miami artist Maria Alquilar $40,000 to create a ceramic mural outside its new library. Its pride was short-lived: The mural misspelled the names of 10 of the 175 historical figures it honored:

Nefertite
Thesues
Michaelangelo
Shakespere
Clara Schuman
Paul Gaugan
Vincent Van Gough
Albert Eistein

German chemist Otto Beckmann’s name was spelled Beckman, and Italian sculptor Luca Della Robbia’s name was spelled Luca Della Robia.

“The most egregious is Einstein,” library director Susan Gallinger told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s the worst one.” Livermore is home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Unfortunately, California state law bars the city from removing or changing public art without the creator’s consent, so the city council had to pay Alquilar an additional $6,000 to correct the errors.

The artist was unapologetic. “The people that are into humanities, and are into Blake’s concept of enlightenment, they are not looking at the words,” she told the Associated Press. “In their mind, the words register correctly.”

Coming and Going

The Danish word for TAX is SKAT.

In a Word

disbosom
v. to reveal or confess

Sweet and Bubbly

In 2005, archivist George Redmonds discovered something surprising among English birth records of the 14th century: a girl named Diot Coke.

She was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1379. Researchers at Britain’s National Archives believe that her first name is a diminutive of Dionisia and her last name a variation of Cook.

She might have done worse. Popular girls’ names of the time included Godelena, Helwise, Idony, and Avice.

Misc

  • To frustrate eavesdroppers, Herbert Hoover and his wife used to converse in Chinese.
  • Asteroids 30439, 30440, 30441, and 30444 are named Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp.
  • COMMITTEES = COST ME TIME
  • 15618 = 1 + 56 – 1 × 8
  • How is it that time passes but space doesn’t?

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives no pronunciation for YHWH.

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russia_stamp_1992_No_15.jpg

treen
adj. made of wood

Constellation

German astronomer Karl Reinmuth discovered and named more than 400 asteroids. Among them are these eight:

1227 Geranium
1228 Scabiosa
1229 Tilia
1230 Riceia
1231 Auricula
1232 Cortusa
1233 Kobresia
1234 Elyna

Their initials spell G. STRACKE, for Gustav Stracke, a fellow astronomer who had asked that no planet be named after him. In this way Reinmuth could honor his colleague without contradicting his wish.

In a Word

oblectation
n. delight, pleasure, enjoyment

adlubescence
n. pleasure or delight

deliciate
v. to delight oneself

Good Enough

Ixonia, Wisconsin, was named at random.

Unable to agree on a name for the town, the residents printed the alphabet on slips of paper, and a girl named Mary Piper drew letters successively until a name was formed.

The town was christened Ixonia on Jan. 21, 1846, and it remains the only Ixonia in the United States.

Double Play

This Latin sentence consists entirely of repeated syllables:

Te tero, Roma, manu nuda, date tela, latete.

“It is you I destroy, Rome, with bare hands, give up weapons, hide yourself.”

See Repeat Performance.

Misc

  • Colombia is the only South American country that borders both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
  • GRAVITATIONAL LENS = STELLAR NAVIGATION
  • 28671 = (2 / 8)-6 × 7 – 1
  • Can a man released from prison be called a freeee?
  • “Nature uses as little as possible of anything.” — Johannes Kepler

Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day that Joseph Stalin’s death was announced. Moscow was so thronged with mourners that three days passed before the composer’s body could be removed for a funeral service.

(Thanks, Alina.)

In a Word

mancipate
v. to enslave

Babel Fishing

“But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.”

So says Casca to Cassius in Julius Caesar, and the expression has been current in our language for 400 years. In 1978, Arnold Rosenberg of the IBM Research Center began to wonder: If we can take that as a general consensus that Greek is harder than English, then perhaps we could seek similar expressions in other languages and so discover the hardest natural language. For example, if Germans say “That seems like Spanish to me” (Das kommt mir spanisch vor), and Finns say “It is totally Hebrew to me” (Se on minulle tāyttā hepreaa), then arguably Spanish is harder than German and Hebrew is harder than Finnish. Rosenberg set about collecting such idioms, and the final picture was surprisingly clear:

http://people.cs.umass.edu/~rsnbrg/hardest.pdf

“Although we have found numerous hardest languages in our quest, we must acknowledge the special position of Chinese among the hardest languages,” he concluded. “If we were backed into a corner and forced to select a single language that deserved the designation ‘hardest,’ then, in terms of popular consensus, of geographical consensus, and of cultural consensus … Chinese would be the hands-down winner.”

(Arnold L. Rosenberg, “The Hardest Natural Languages,” Lingvisticæ Investigationes, June 1979.)

Stone Cold

“A cactolith is a quasihorizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.”

That’s from USGS researcher Charles B. Hunt’s 1953 paper “Geology and Geography of the Henry Mountains Region, Utah.” He was describing an actual geological feature — but also commenting on the absurd profusion of -lith words in geology.

Word Ways chose it as its word of the year for 2010.

Theme and Variations

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_nascita_di_Venere_(Botticelli).jpg

After reading David Shulman’s anagrammed tribute to Washington crossing the Delaware, Janet Hodge composed this sonnet:

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus

Love is born. A thin cloud bestirs theft —
such a festive birth not to be droll sin.
No strict habits should live on bereft
of love. Blind, it throbs; truth ceases in
antic trust. Oh, love is blest, for behind
its first bother, viols enchant. Double
fret (blush) scares the volition to bind.
It finds both chaste lovers in trouble.
Loves throes ache, but sit blind in frost.
The love born of bliss dictates in hurt
a nibbled truth, sloven heir of its cost.
Noble itch is hovel burn, tastes of dirt.
The bit done, not favors rise, but chills;
Best avoid, not note, such brief thrills.

Each line is a perfect anagram of the title.

Misc

  • Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, until 2013.
  • To protect its ecosystem, the location of Hyperion, the world’s tallest living tree, is kept secret.
  • 34425 = 34 × 425
  • CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE = ACTUAL CRIME ISN’T EVINCED
  • “Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?” — James Thurber

In a Word

cicisbeo
n. the escort or lover of a married woman

bedswerver
n. one who breaks one’s marriage vows

deuterogamist
n. one who marries a second time