Write the word MAYONNAISE in a circle and read it backward and you get I ANNOY AMES.
Make of that what you will.
(From Word Ways, February 1968.)
Reversing the Dutch word for kidney, NIER, gives the French word for kidney, REIN.
What’s unusual about this sentence by Harry Mathews?
Once brought into this country, partly imprudent gray barbers marry expatriate, parrying the frictions of tried friends such as Mary, the sorry crook with no work at hand, who is now without a murmur getting pastry.
It remains a sentence when you remove the Rs:
Once bought into this county, patly impudent gay babes may expatiate, paying the fictions of tied fiends such as May, the soy cook with no wok at hand, who is now without a mumu getting pasty.
Every great work inspires variants. Here are the opening lines of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not:
You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us.
We sat down and one of them came over. ‘Well,’ he said.
‘I can’t do it,’ I told him. ‘I’d like to do it as a favor. But I told you last night I couldn’t.’
‘You can name your own price.’
‘It isn’t that. I can’t do it. That’s all.’
And here are the opening lines of Lynn Crawford’s To Have Not and Have:
Few understand it here late in the evening in Oslo with the divas wide awake still opening, closing doors after even fuel company planes fly in fuel for the fires. Well, I navigated to the walkway extending from shore to the Sow’s Ear café to drop off brandy and there were several divas awake spooning meals out of bowls. But when I got inside and leaned on the bar, there was one running from me.
I continued standing and several more ran from me.
‘Hey,’ they carolled.
‘I can do it,’ I told them. ‘I told you this morning it was impossible. But I can do it for a fee.’
‘We name your fee.’
‘Agreed. I can do it. And something else –’
This is an example of antonymy, a technique invented by the French experimental writing group Oulipo in which each designated element in a text is replaced with its opposite.
A simpler example: “To not be and to be: this was an answer.”
n. a voracious eater
“Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.” — Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, 1944
“Outside every fat man there was an even fatter man trying to close in.” — Kingsley Amis, One Fat Englishman, 1963
Until 2007, this unassuming railway station in North Wales went by the name Gorsafawddacha’idraigodanheddogleddollônpenrhynareurdraethceredigion.
This was an attempt to outdo Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a village on the island of Anglesey, for the distinction of the longest place name in Europe.
Perhaps because of the apostrophe, the bid was little recognized, and in 2007 the name was reduced, rather drastically, to Golf Halt.
Why would anyone ask a question with 76 spaces, 60 apostrophes, 33 commas, 1 question mark, 2 ’0′s, 3 ’1′s, 5 ’2′s, 14 ’3′s, 7 ’4′s, 5 ’5′s, 5 ’6′s, 3 ’7′s, 2 ’8′s, 3 ’9′s, 2 ‘W’s, 9 ‘a’s, 3 ‘c’s, 3 ‘d’s, 6 ‘e’s, 4 ‘h’s, 4 ‘i’s, 3 ‘k’s, 2 ‘l’s, 4 ‘m’s, 6 ‘n’s, 8 ‘o’s, 4 ‘p’s, 3 ‘q’s, 3 ‘r’s, 39 ‘s’s, 5 ‘t’s, 4 ‘u’s, 3 ‘w’s, and 3 ‘y’s?
- Will Rogers died at the northernmost point in the United States.
- 94122 + 23532 = 94122353
- TO BE OR NOT TO BE contains two Bs.
- If you stop me being mute, what sound do I make?
- “Better to ask twice than to lose your way once.” — Danish proverb
n. fear of (or worry about) hotels
Art historian Bernard Berenson offered this word in his 1952 memoir Rumour and Reflection:
I invented it long ago to designate the sinking feeling that in my travels often overcame me: of fear lest the inn or hotel at which we were to lodge would be sordid, would not let me have the promised apartment; that my bedroom would have the wrong proportions, mulling or flattening me out of my normal shape and squeezing me out of my own way of breathing; that the lights would be glaring and no reading lamp by my bed; that there would be sharp or clattering sounds outside, or bad smells without or within. Motoring in the Vendee or Poitou, in Spain or Greece as evening darkened, tired or even exhausted, I would wish the destination farther and farther away, for fear of what I should find when I reached it.
When William Tazewell mentioned the word in a 1989 travel article in the New York Times, reader Louis Jay Herman wrote to add “a few more suggested contributions to the Hellenizing of the travel language”:
n. fear of having to cope with a foreign doctor
n. fear of finding yourself in a foreign hospital
n. fear of foreign pickpockets
n. fear of high prices
And cacohydrophobia, loosely translatable as Can I drink what comes out of the tap in this joint?
n. an entity whose presence is unverifiable because it has no physical effects
A.J. Ayer coined this word spontaneously while describing his “principle of verification” during a 1949 broadcast:
Suppose I say, ‘There’s a drogulus over there’ and you say … ‘What’s a drogulus?’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I can’t describe what a drogulus is, because it is not the sort of thing you can see or touch. It has no physical effects of any kind, but it’s a disembodied being.’ And you say, ‘Well, how am I to tell if it’s there or not?’ and I say, ‘There’s no way of telling. Everything’s just the same if it’s there or it’s not there. But the fact is it’s there. There’s a drogulus there standing just behind you.’ Does that make sense?
“Talk about obscure words!” writes lexicographer Norman Schur. “Have we finally met the man who wasn’t there?”
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.
– Hughes Mearns
Curiously, Ayer himself seems to have confirmed at least one sighting. In 1959, Lionel Penrose wrote in New Biology, “I had difficulty in finding a suitable name for the activated complexes produced in [certain] experiments. On showing one of them to Professor A. J. Ayer, I inquired whether it perhaps might be a ‘drogulus’ … He replied that it was undoubtedly a ‘drogulus’.”
Writer Harry Mathews experimented with a bilingual vocabulary he called “legal franglais.” He compiled 425 words that are spelled identically in French and English (aside from accents and capitals). Examples:
Mets attend the sale
Mets attend thé salé
If rogue ignore genes, bride pays
If rogue ignore gênes, bride pays
As mute tint regains miens, touts allege bath
As muté tint regains miens, tout s’allège, bath
If emu ignore bonds, mire jars rogue
If ému ignore bonds, mire jars rogue
Roman delusive gent fit crisper rayon
Roman d’élusive gent fit crisper rayon
Because, ideally, the words should have no meaning in common, it’s hard to find reasonable settings for these utterances. Ian Monk proposed this example:
Il ne faut pas rôtir les oies mais plutôt les mâles de l’espèce, et en grande quantitê.
When it was Fred’s round, he told the landlord to grab their pint glasses and serve him and his three companions forthwith.
SEIZE JARS POUR FOUR.
One can attempt the same thing preserving sound rather than spelling. In Alphonse Allais’ verse, entire lines are pronounced the same:
Par le bois du djinn, où s’entasse de l’effroi,
Parle, bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.
And, combining these two ideas, one can compose a sentence that looks like French but sounds like English. Stopping before a monkey’s cage, François Le Lionnais exclaimed, “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver!”
“2 Poems,” by Tom King, from The Oulipo Compendium. I don’t know why these are so charming, but they are:
This Is Jist Ti Siy
by Tim King
I hivi iitin
thit wiri in
yii wiri pribibli
thiy wiri diliciiis
ind si cild
Thos Os Jost To Soy
by Tom Kong
O hovo ooton
thot woro on
yoo woro proboblo
thoy woro dolocooos
ond so cold
n. writer’s cramp
A “poem for stutterers” by Harry Mathews:
Mimi, our hours so social shall secede;
And answer surlily tie-tidied deed.
Read it aloud.
v. to impale upon hooks
v. a sullen look
adj. much displeased
v. to trouble in sleep
A prisoner has a limited supply of paper and wants to conserve space by avoiding any letter that extends above or below the line (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, or y). How far can he get?
Pretty far, it turns out. Writer Ian Monk came up with this:
a russian con’s economic missive
we were once seven con men, we are now seven cons. as communism was over we saw easier success in american consumerism, i.e. crime. in a moscow inn, we swore: — seven is one, so one is seven … soon we came across a scam. our main man wove us a nice wee earner: — we own a zinc mine. since our russian economic crisis came in, our income’s never risen. we can cram ice in our mine’s veins, raise rumours re our ice mine’s immense resources, con morons we are mere zeros. as soon as career men see our ice, we win ‘em over. once we’ve won ‘em over, we receive numerous ecus or euros. as soon as we’ve our monies, we serve ‘em arsenic in wine. we can even recommence on numerous occasions. … our scam was a success. our asses never saw sense. we were euros in. we saw our main man serve our vicious wine mix … a near miss .. our arsenic was mere mouse venom. some asses were survivors: — summon a coroner, someone swore. — or a nurse. — or some rozzers. so we ran. we swam across a river. as soon as no one was near us, we wove our monies in wee canvas cases we wore in our arses. we ran on. in vain … someone saw us on vanavara’s main avenue. a commissioner, nine rozzers, seven airmen, six cia men overcame us. we were sworn in. we are now in moscow in irons in room nine. as soon as someone receives or sos, come … run … save us … since no one’s ever come across our economies, our ransoms are even now in our arses.
In 1990 François Caradec invented “poems for dogs.” A pet’s name is hidden phonetically in each verse; like a dog whistle, it goes unnoticed by the master but makes the dog sit up. Here’s a sample written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel Flush:
My mistress never slights me
When taking outdoor tea.
She brings sweet cake
For her sweet sake,
Rough, luscious bones for me.
Flush was already a bit of a literary celebrity — Barrett Browning composed two poems about him, and Virginia Woolf made him the hero of a whole novel, Flush: A Biography, in 1933. In 1843, after Flush was briefly held for ransom, his mistress wrote, “Oh, and if you had seen him, when he came home & threw himself into my arms … in that dumb inarticulate ecstasy which is so affecting.”
Japanese novelist Tarō Hirai wrote detective fiction under the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo.
That’s a phonetic rendering of one of the genre’s inventors — Edgar Allan Poe.
n. one who repeats the same words needlessly
This self-describing (and otherwise pointless) sentence contains exactly 95 spaces, 66 apostrophes, 1 open parenthesis, 1 close parenthesis, 40 commas, 1 hyphen, 1 period, 4 ’0′s, 13 ’1′s, 9 ’2′s, 7 ’3′s, 8 ’4′s, 5 ’5′s, 4 ’6′s, 4 ’7′s, 4 ’8′s, 4 ’9′s, 2 ‘O’s, 2 ‘T’s, 12 ‘a’s, 2 ‘b’s, 10 ‘c’s, 7 ‘d’s, 21 ‘e’s, 3 ‘f’s, 4 ‘g’s, 8 ‘h’s, 13 ‘i’s, 7 ‘l’s, 5 ‘m’s, 16 ‘n’s, 12 ‘o’s, 10 ‘p’s, 8 ‘r’s, 53 ‘s’s, 9 ‘t’s, 2 ‘u’s, 2 ‘w’s, 3 ‘x’s, and 3 ‘y’s, including a single Oxford comma.
THREE NONILLION THIRTEEN TRILLION NINETEEN BILLION contains:
At least two numbers produce similar results in Spanish:
SEISCIENTOS ONCE NONILLONES SETECIENTOS DIECISEIS
UN OCTODECILLÓN DOSCIENTOS CINCO NONILLONES SEISCIENTOS CINCO
In 1853, a writer to Notes & Queries observed that the third line of Gray’s Elegy can be transposed 11 different ways while retaining its sense:
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way.
The weary ploughman plods his homeward way.
The weary ploughman homeward plods his way.
The ploughman, weary, plods his homeward way.
The ploughman weary homeward plods his way.
Weary the ploughman plods his homeward way.
Weary the ploughman homeward plods his way.
Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way.
Homeward the ploughman weary plods his way.
Homeward the weary ploughman plods his way.
The homeward ploughman weary plods his way.
The homeward ploughman plods his weary way.
“It is doubtful whether another line can be found, the words of which admit so many transpositions, and still retain the original meaning,” he wrote. Forty-two years later, the editors of Miscellaneous Notes and Queries proved him right, filling four pages with 252 transpositions:
Plods the ploughman, weary, his homeward way.
His weary way the homeward ploughman plods.
Homeward plods his way the ploughman, weary.
His homeward way the weary ploughman plods.
The weary ploughman homeward plods his way.
The homeward ploughman, weary, his way plods.
The weary ploughman plods his way homeward.
Plods the weary ploughman his way homeward.
Weary, the ploughman plods his homeward way.
His way homeward plods the weary ploughman.
Plods, weary, the ploughman his way homeward.
Weary his way plods homeward the ploughman.
The ploughman, weary, homeward plods his way.
His way plods homeward the ploughman, weary.
Homeward, weary, the ploughman his way plods.
They even offered a year’s subscription to any reader who could add to the list. I can’t tell whether anyone took them up on it — perhaps they were too tired.
An ignorant Yorkshireman having occasion to go to France, was surprised on his arrival to hear the men speaking French, the women speaking French, and the children jabbering away in the same tongue. In the height of the perplexity which this occasioned, he retired to his hotel, and awakened in the morning by the cock crowing, whereupon he burst into a wild exclamation of astonishment and delight, crying, ‘Thank goodness! there’s English at last!’
– Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 10, 1881
n. one who cannot read