n. the act of observing a holiday
I know a pilgrim from a distant land
Who said: Two vast and sawn-off limbs of quartz
Stand on an arid plain. Not far, in sand
Half sunk, I found a facial stump, drawn warts
And all; its curling lips of cold command
Show that its sculptor passions could portray
Which still outlast, stamp’d on unliving things,
A mocking hand that no constraint would sway:
And on its plinth this lordly boast is shown:
“Lo, I am Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, O Mighty, and bow down!”
‘Tis all that is intact. Around that crust
Of a colossal ruin, now windblown,
A sandstorm swirls and grinds it into dust.
(By Georges Perec, translated from the French by Gilbert Adair.)
n. a tale that evokes joy and sadness simultaneously
v. to sing and weep at the same time
Harry Mathews composed this limerick:
Young Dick, always eager to eat,
Denied stealing the fish eggs, whereat,
Caning him for a liar,
His pa ate the caviar
And left Dicky digesting the caveat.
Shouldn’t it rhyme?
REVEL EVER, EVE! O EVE, REVEL EVER!
That sentence, composed by J.A. Lindon, can reproduce itself in two ways — it’s a conventional palindrome, and it produces a natural word square:
Letter to the Times, Aug. 19, 1930:
Sir, In one of the loveliest gardens in the West of Scotland, opened freely on certain days to a vast public from Glasgow and that neighbourhood, courteous notices everywhere intimated that ‘Visitors are requested not to pick the flowers without leave.’ A waggish tourist went round with a paint brush, adding an ‘s’ to the word ‘leave,’ with the deplorable result that not only were flowers plucked, but whole plants — flowers, leaves, and roots — were excavated and carried off.
This reversible magic square comes from Henry Dudeney’s Canterbury Puzzles.
Each row, column, and diagonal in the square totals 179.
Thanks to some clever calligraphy, this remains true when the square is turned upside down.
n. food that makes one idle and stupid, food of no nutritive value, junk food
- A pound of dimes has the same value as a pound of quarters.
- The French word hétérogénéité has five accents.
- 32768 = (3 – 2 + 7)6 / 8
- Can you deceive yourself deliberately?
- “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” — Thomas Paine
In 2000, Guatemalan police asked Christmas revelers not to fire pistols into the air. “Lots of people die when bullets fall on their heads,” National Civilian Police spokesman Faustino Sanchez told Reuters. He said that five to ten Guatemalans are killed or injured each Christmas by falling bullets.
Writing in a prison diary in 1943, Ho Chi Minh discovered a lesson in Chinese ideographs:
Take away the sign (man) from the sign for prison,
Add to it (probability), that makes the word (nation).
Take the head-particle from the sign for misfortune:
That gives the word (fidelity).
Add the sign for man (standing) to the sign for worry,
That gives the word (quality).
Take away the bamboo top from the sign for prison,
That gives you dragon.
People who come out of prison can build up the country,
Misfortune is a test of people’s fidelity.
Those who protest at injustice are people of true merit.
When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.
On his release, he started the August Revolution.
adj. attracting the opposite sex
n. the state of development in which one becomes attracted to members of the opposite sex
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