Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1581, using a “shewstone,” or crystal, astrologer John Dee and seer Edward Kelley set out to discover knowledge that couldn’t be gleaned from books or experimentation.

They succeeded: Angels gave them the “Celestial Speech,” the language that God used to create the world and taught to Adam, who lost it in his fall from paradise.

After transmitting the 21-letter alphabet above, Dee said, the angels sent him a series of texts, some with translations, that formed the basis for a vocabulary.

Some features of “Enochian” suggest that Dee was “speaking in tongues” while transcribing the language, while others show suspicious similarities to English grammar and syntax. But then, Dee maintained that modern languages arose through Adam’s attempts to reconstruct the language he had lost.

“No language has a stranger history than the Enochian language,” wrote Australian linguist Donald Laycock, who studied the curious system. “Perhaps strangest of all is that we still do not know whether it is a natural language or an invented language — or whether it is, perhaps, the language of the angels, as its originators believed.”



A Scrabble player needs a way to recognize the potential in any collection of tiles. If your rack contains the seven letters AIMNSTU, for example, what eighth letter should you be watching for to create an acceptable eight-letter word?

If you arrange your seven letters into the word TSUNAMI, and if you’ve memorized the corresponding phrase COASTAL HARM, then you have your answer: Any of the letters in that phrase will produce an acceptable eight-letter word:


TSUNAMI: COASTAL HARM is an example of an anamonic (“anagram mnemonic”), a tool that tournament players use to memorize valuable letter combinations. Devising useful anamonics is itself an art form in the Scrabble community — one has to create a memorable phrase using a constrained set of letters. Some are memorable indeed:


“One of the first anamonics I ever read, back in 1998, was PRIEST: EVERYONE COMPLAINED OF THE SODOMY,” wrote Jeff Myers in Word Ways in May 2007. “I couldn’t believe it. The letters in that phrase — no more and no less — could combine with PRIEST to make 7-letter words.”

When the word list TWL06 appeared, PERITUS became a legal word. That’s PRIEST + U, so the mnemonic phrase now needed to include a U. “One simple fix is: EVERYONE COMPLAINED OF YOUTH SODOMY,” wrote Myers. “Now maybe even more startling.”

John Chew maintains canonical lists of anamonics using the official Tournament Word List and the alternate SOWPODS list.

In a Word

adj. high-flying

adj. capable of being seen, visible

n. a source of fear

John Lithgow’s eyes pop out of his head momentarily at the climax of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the final segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). In the segment, a remake of the famous television episode from 1963, Lithgow plays a nervous air passenger who discovers a gremlin on the wing of his plane. At the moment when he lifts the shade, the edit shows the monster for 17 frames, then Lithgow’s face for 10 frames, then the monster for 42 frames, and then a 5-frame shot of Lithgow’s head incorporating the eye-popping effect.

Of these 5 frames, the first three show a wild-eyed Lithgow, the fourth shows bulging eyes, and the fifth is shown below. “This 5-frame sequence is on the screen for 1/5 second, but the most distorted image is only visible for 1/24 second,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “Blink at the wrong time, and you miss it. But if you watch the shot carefully at normal speed, the sequence is detectable. Lithgow’s eyes seem to inflate with an accelerated, cartoon-like quality.”

Here’s the frame:

twilight zone movie

Two Odd Etymologies


Nachos are named after a person, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, who owned a restaurant known as El Moderno in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, in the early 1940s. Around 1943 he began serving fried tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers, calling the dish “Nacho’s Especiales.”

The taser’s name was inspired by a 1911 adventure book for boys, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, involving a rifle that fires electricity rather than bullets. The taser’s inventor, NASA scientist Jack Cover, thought this was an apt description of his own weapon, so he made an acronym of Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle.

Both origins are borne out by the Oxford English Dictionary.



Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife, Mina, in Morse code.

“My later courtship was carried on by telegraph,” he wrote in his diary. “I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak of it, she might have found it harder.”

Sound and Sense

In the early 1970s, Alan Berry and Ronald Morehead visited the Sierra Nevada of eastern California and emerged with “the Sierra Sounds recordings,” 90 minutes of vocalizations and wood knockings that they attributed to Bigfoot. In studying these and other recordings, “Bigfoot language expert” R. Scott Nelson has devised a Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet to record the utterances:

0:4.5 (W) (W)

0:8.62 (W) (W) (W)


0:16.70 WAM VO HÜ KHÖ KHU’


0:18.82 NÄR LÄ


0:21.25 Ü KÜ DZJÄ

0:21.76 FRrÄP E KHÜK LE

(A fuller transcription, and Nelson’s notating conventions, are here.)

What should we make of this? Nelson claims that “the creatures mentally process information at a much higher rate than humans do, or at least they are able to communicate their ideas much faster,” which makes their speech impossible for humans to understand, but “we have verified that these creatures use language, by the human definition of it.”

“No, we haven’t,” answers linguist Karen Stollznow in Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic (2014). “Before creating a transcription of this ‘Bigfoot language’, Nelson first needed to demonstrate that this is language. He has tried to authenticate the recordings, rather than analyze them in an unbiased way. Unknown sounds don’t immediately qualify as ‘language’, any more than an Unidentified Flying Object must be extraterrestrial.”

“There is no solid physical evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot. Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.”

An Elizabethan Word Square

lok square

Princeton scholar Thomas P. Roche Jr. calls this “an astounding piece of ingenuity,” one of “the most elaborately numerological poems I have found in the Renaissance.” Poet Henry Lok created it in 1597, in honor of Elizabeth I. It can be read as a conventional 10-line poem, but there are fully eight other ways to read it:

“1. A Saint George’s crosse [+] of two collumbs, in discription of her Maiestie, beginning at A, and B, in the middle to be read downward, and crossing at C and D to be read either singly or double.”

Rare Queen, fair, mild, wise
Shows you proof
For heavens have upheld
Just world’s praise sure.

Here Grace in that Prince
Of earth’s race, who
There shields thus God
Whom choice (rich Isle, stay!) builds.

“2. A S[aint] Andrew’s crosse [X], beginning at E and read thwartwaies, and ending with F, containing the description of our happie age, by her highnesse.”

God crowned this time, wise choice of all the Rest,
And so truth, joy of just kings’ known, God blest.

“3. Two Pillars in the right and left side of the square, in verse reaching from E and F perpenddicularly, containing the sum of the whole, the latter columbe hauing the words placed counterchangeably to rime to the whole square.”

God makes kings rule for heauens; your state hold blest
And still stand will their shields; fear yields best rest.

“4. The first and last two verses or the third and fourth, with seuenth and eighth, are sense in them selues, containing also sense of the whole.”

“5. The whole square of 100, containing in it self fiue squares, the angles of each of them are sense particularly, and vnited depend each on other, beginning at the center.”

1 Just, wise of choice
2 Joy of kings’ time
3 This truth all known
4 So crowned the God
5 Blessed God and rest.

“6. The out-angles are to be read 8 seuerall waies in sense and verse.”

“7. The eight words placed also in the ends of the St. George’s crosse, are sense and verse, alluding to the whole crosse.”

Rare grace here builds
There shields for heaven.

Rare Grace there shields
For heaven here builds.

“8. The two third words in the bend dexeter of the St. Andrew’s crosse, being the middle from the angles to the center, haue in their first letters T. and A. for the Author, and H.L. in their second, for his name, which to be true, the words of the angles in that square confirme.”

THis ALl
T[he]H[enry]is A[uthor]L[ok]l

“9. The direction to her Maiestie in prose aboue, containeth onely of numerall letters, the yeare and day of the composition, as thus, DD. C. LL. LL. LL. LL. VV. VV. VV. IIIIIIIIIIIII. For, 1593. June V.”

The whole square is intended to demonstrate the powers of language to accommodate the queen’s praises in God’s providential order. Further, the arrangement of the words forms a comment on the political situation at the time: St. George is the patron saint of England, St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and the pillars may represent Elizabeth’s chosen emblem, the Pillars of Hercules. “The fact that the words of the square can be forced to yield meaning within the imposed specifications is amazing in itself.”

(Thomas P. Roche Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences, 1989.)

In a Word

n. a traveling companion

adj. removed from one’s usual surroundings

n. things to be believed; matters of faith

David Livingstone reaches the Atlantic, May 31, 1854:

The plains adjacent to Loanda are somewhat elevated and comparatively sterile. On coming across these we first beheld the sea: my companions looked upon the boundless ocean with awe. On describing their feelings afterwards, they remarked that ‘we marched along with our father, believing that what the ancients had always told us was true, that the world has no end; but all at once the world said to us, “I am finished; there is no more of me!”‘ They had always imagined that the world was one extended plain without limit.

(From his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, 1857.)

A Quick Fix


Coil the word REMEDIABLENESSES into a spiral and, surprisingly, you get a word square.

All eight words, four across and four down, appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

(“Colloquy,” Word Ways 16:1 [February 1983], 26. Discovered by Jeff Grant.)

This Land Is Your Land


The Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has granted only five possessive apostrophes in 113 years:

  • Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., 1933. This had been designated Marthas Vineyard for 40 years until the committee restored the apostrophe after a local protest campaign.
  • Ike’s Point, N.J., 1944. Here the apostrophe was allowed because the board agreed that “Ikes Point” would be “unrecognizable.”
  • John E’s Pond, R.I., 1963. Spoken aloud, this might otherwise have been misunderstood as “John S Pond.”
  • Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Ariz., 1995. “Joshua” is the name of a tree and “Carlos Elmer” is the name of a photographer. The Arizona state names board argued that three given names in a row would “dilute the meaning.”
  • Clark’s Mountain, Ore., 2002. The Oregon names board asked for this exception “to correspond with the personal preferences of Lewis and Clark.”

Other place names, including Harpers Ferry and Pikes Peak, are generally stripped of their apostrophes in official federal usage (there are some administrative exceptions, such as Prince George’s County, Md.).

The committee argues that an apostrophe implies private ownership of a public place. The United States is the only country with such a policy, but the rule has been reaffirmed five times. In 2013 Jennifer Runyon of the names committee told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t debate the apostrophe.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

05/24/2017 UPDATE: Apparently New South Wales has a similar rule. From the NSW Addressing User Manual (PDF):

6.7.2.e. An apostrophe mark shall not be included in road names written with a final ‘s’, and the possessive ‘s shall not be included e.g. St Georges Terrace not St George’s Terrace. Apostrophes forming part of an eponymous name shall be included (e.g. O’Connor Road).

(Thanks, Daniel.)