In a Word

adj. musing, meditating, thoughtful, deep in thought

In his Treatise of the System of the World, Isaac Newton imagines firing cannonballs with greater and greater velocity from a high mountaintop. “The body projected with a less velocity, describes the lesser arc VD, and with a greater velocity, the greater arc VE, and augmenting the velocity, it goes farther and farther to F and G; if the velocity was still more and more augmented, it would reach at last quite beyond the circumference of the Earth, and return to the mountain from which it was projected.”

Indeed, if air resistance is not a factor, the cannonball will return to the mountain with the same velocity with which it left it, “and retaining the same velocity, it will describe the same curve over and over, by the same law,” like the moon. Thus with a simple thought experiment Newton conceived that gravity was the key force underlying planetary motion.

In a fitting tribute, the diagram above is now traveling beyond the solar system on the Voyager Golden Record, on a journey that its author helped to make possible.

Puzzling Lines

In his 1943 book The Life of Johnny Reb, Emory University historian Bell Wiley collects misspellings found in the letters of Confederate soldiers. Can you decipher these words?

  1. agetent
  2. bregad
  3. cerce
  4. crawsed
  5. furteege
  6. orpital
  7. perperce
  8. porchun
  9. regislatury
  10. ridgement

Bonus: What does A brim ham lillkern mean?

Click for Answer

Easy Reading

Can you understand the meaning of this passage?

Interlingua se ha distachate ab le movimento pro le disveloppamento e le introduction de un lingua universal pro tote le humanitate. Si o non on crede que un lingua pro tote le humanitate es possibile, si o non on crede que interlingua va devenir un tal lingua es totalmente indifferente ab le puncto de vista de interlingua mesme. Le sol facto que importa (ab le puncto de vista de interlingua mesme) es que interlingua, gratias a su ambition de reflecter le homogeneitate cultural e ergo linguistic del occidente, es capace de render servicios tangibile a iste precise momento del historia del mundo. Il es per su contributiones actual e non per le promissas de su adherentes que interlingua vole esser judicate.

Remarkably, if you’re familiar with a Romance language or are an educated speaker of English, you probably can. It’s Interlingua, a language that combines a minimal grammar with a widely familiar vocabulary, making it unusually easy to learn and comprehend. Here’s a translation of the passage above:

Interlingua has detached itself from the movement for the development and introduction of a universal language for all humanity. Whether or not one believes that a language for all humanity is possible, whether or not one believes that Interlingua will become such a language is totally irrelevant from the point of view of Interlingua itself. The only fact that matters (from the point of view of Interlingua itself) is that Interlingua, thanks to its ambition of reflecting the cultural and thus linguistic homogeneity of the West, is capable of rendering tangible services at this precise moment in the history of the world. It is by its present contributions and not by the promises of its adherents that Interlingua wishes to be judged.

Devised in the early 20th century, the language is now taught in high schools and universities; among international auxiliary languages, it’s the easiest to understand without prior study.

In a Word

adj. keeping silence, silent

As a joke, Elbert Hubbard published an “Essay on Silence” that consisted of 12 blank pages, bound in brown suede and stamped with gold. It was advertised with these testimonials:

“Your elaborate work on ‘Silence’ received, and perused this day. The depth of your argument is perceptible from the start. The continued logic is convincing to the end, and makes its impression on the attentive mind. It is singular how much can be said in a limited space. You are certainly master of our language.” — G.E.Nelson

“Kindly accept my heartiest thanks for your little volume on ‘Silence.’ The subject is treated so exhaustively, and in such a quaintly original manner, that it is beyond the pale of criticism.” — Alex L. Pach

“Your valuable ‘Essay on Silence’ is a masterpiece, for it appeals to one in purity, like a cloudless sky. The language is grand as the voice of God; the story it tells is as deep in its meaning as that which is written on the pages of the book of Nature.” — Albert J. Atkins

“Your ‘Essay on Silence’ is all that the bills promised, and could not be more to the point. Thirty cents is exactly the right price.” — Alice L. LeCouver

“It is with great pleasure that I have looked into your ‘Essay on Silence.’ There is nothing in it to prevent its becoming a classic. No word has been wasted, and there is not one line that can be misunderstood. In the perusal of many writings, we realize that the same thought has been framed in our own minds without having been given an utterance; and so it is that this last work of yours has found me most sympathetic and appreciative, for in turning over your pages I am struck frequently with resemblances to my own mental condition. Your little book is simple, direct and convincing. I am reminded, in putting it down, of a certain passage in the biblical story, in which it is set forth that from nothing God made heaven and earth and all that therein is, consequently it is not surprising that you in this case have done so well.” — George W. Stevens

Image: Flickr

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 consistent: 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.)


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 Answer

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.)