Language

Repeat Performances

A “poem for stutterers” by Harry Mathews:

Mimi, our hours so social shall secede;
And answer surlily tie-tidied deed.

And a sentence composed by Leigh Mercer:

“Bye-bye, Lulu,” Fifi murmured, “George Orr pooh-poohs so-so Tartar cocoa beriberi Dodo had had.”

In a Word

scalariform
adj. resembling a ladder

Above the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a ladder that has remained in place since the 19th century. At that time an edict was passed holding that the church’s doors and window ledges are “common ground” for the various Christian orders; as a result, no church can move anything near the window — including the ladder. It’s visible in the engraving below, which was made in 1834.

(Thanks, Randy.)

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Immovable-Ladder-1834.png

Opposites Attract

In 1967 Dmitri Borgmann made his way from UGLY to BEAUTIFUL by means of dictionary definitions:

UGLY — OFFENSIVE
OFFENSIVE — INSULTING
INSULTING — INSOLENT
INSOLENT — PROUD
PROUD — LORDLY
LORDLY — STATELY
STATELY — GRAND
GRAND — GORGEOUS
GORGEOUS — BEAUTIFUL

Kipling called words “the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frits_Thaulow_Towards_the_Pont_Lovignon_in_Quimperl%C3%A9.jpg

transpontine
adj. across a bridge

Diction Airy

In 1856 Samuel Hoshour reflected that students might learn new words more easily if they were presented in context rather than in long gray lists of definitions. The result was Letters to Squire Pedant, an imaginary correspondence salted with ten-dollar vocabulary words:

Dear Sir, At my decession from you; your final alloquy, and concinnous deport laid me under a reasonable obstriction to impart to you, a pantography of the occidental domain upon which I had placed my ophthalmic organs. I now merge my plumous implement of chirography into the atramental fluid, to exonerate myself of that obstriction. From my earliest juvenility, I possessed an indomitable proclivity to lead those that are given to the lection of my lucubrations, to the inception of occurrences. And it would be a dilucid evagation from my accustomary route, would I not now insist upon a regression of your mind to the locality where we imparted mutual valedictions.

Unfortunately, he gets a bit carried away. “Longevous Sir,” begins Letter IV, “The day sequacious to the vesper on which I effectuated in a certain cabaret an exsiccation of my habiliments by torrefaction, was not very inservient to the progress of a pedestrious emigrant.”

Alignment

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

By Lee Sallows: Assign the letters JHMLCNVTURISEYAPO to the integers -8 to 8 and you get:

sallows planets alignment

And a reader points out that ERIS gives 10.

Cold Faith

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V66_D484_Inland_white_bear.png

Apropos of Eskimo, I once heard a missionary describe the extraordinary difficulty he had found in translating the Bible into Eskimo. It was useless to talk of corn or wine to a people who did not know even what they meant, so he had to use equivalents within their powers of comprehension. Thus in the Eskimo version of the Scriptures the miracle of Cana of Galilee is described as turning the water into blubber; the 8th verse of the 5th chapter of the First Epistle of St. Peter ran: ‘Your adversary the devil, as a roaring Polar bear walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.’ In the same way ‘A land flowing with milk and honey’ became ‘A land flowing with whale’s blubber,’ and throughout the New Testament the words ‘Lamb of God’ had to be translated ‘little Seal of God,’ as the nearest possible equivalent. The missionary added that his converts had the lowest opinion of Jonah for not having utilised his exceptional opportunities by killing and eating the whale.

— Lord Frederic Hamiliton, The Days Before Yesterday, 1920

Roundabout

sensuousnesses palindrome

SENSUOUSNESSES is a circular palindrome — when written in a circle, it can be read both clockwise and counterclockwise.

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PaulT.jpg

scripturient
adj. having a desire for writing or authorship

“The Twenty-Third Psaum”

The Lord is my Shepherd; my wants are a’ kent; the pasture I lie on is growthie and green.

I follow by the lip o’ the watirs o’ Peace.

He heals and sterklie hauds my saul: and airts me, for his ain name’s sake, in a’ the fit-roads o’ his holiness.

Aye, and though I bude gang throwe the howe whaur the deid-shadows fa’, I’se fear nae skaith nor ill, for that yersel is aye aside me; yere rod and yere cruik they defend me.

My table ye hae plenish’t afore the een o’ my faes; my heid ye hae chrystit wi’ oyle; my cup is teemin fu’!

And certes, tenderness and mercie sal be my fa’ to the end o’ my days; and syne I’se bide i’ the hoose o’ the Lord, for evir and evir mair!

— William Wye Smith, The New Testament in Braid Scots, 1904

Words and Numbers

A common error resulting from bad penmanship is the substitution of letters for figures, or the reverse: thus, in the report of a coal-market, where the writer intended to say that there was an over-supply of egg size, the types laid that there was an over-supply of 299; similarly, where a writer described a house with zigzag staircases, he was made to give it the extraordinary number of 219,209 staircases. In an obituary notice of Sidney Godolphin Osborne, the London Times described him as the author of the celebrated tract ‘No Go,’ when what the writer meant was the tract No. 90. But no similar excuse can be urged for the printer who made Tennyson’s famous lines read,–

Into the valley of death
Rode the 600.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1909

Misc

  • Only humans are allergic to poison ivy.
  • GUNPOWDERY BLACKSMITH uses 20 different letters.
  • New York City has no Wal-Marts.
  • (5/8)2 + 3/8 = (3/8)2 + 5/8
  • “Ignorance of one’s misfortunes is clear gain.” — Euripides

For any four consecutive Fibonacci numbers a, b, c, and d, ad and 2bc form the legs of a Pythagorean triangle and cdab is the hypotenuse.

(Thanks, Katie.)

History Brief

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thure_de_Thulstrup_-_L._Prang_and_Co._-_Battle_of_Gettysburg_-_Restoration_by_Adam_Cuerden.jpg

Meade brought his troops to this place where they were to win or lose the fight. At noon all was in trim, and at the sign from Lee’s guns a fierce rain of shot and shell fell on both sides. For three hours this was kept up, and in the midst of it Lee sent forth a large force of his men to break through Meade’s ranks. Down the hill they went and through the vale, and up to the low stone wall, back of which stood the foe. But Lee’s brave men did not stop here. On they went, up close to the guns whose fire cut deep in their ranks, while Lee kept watch from the height they had left. The smoke lifts, and Lee sees the flag of the South wave in the midst of the strife. The sight cheers his heart. His men are on the hill from which they think they will soon drive the foe. A dense cloud of smoke veils the scene. When it next lifts the boys in gray are in flight down the slope where the grass is strewn thick with the slain. … Oh, that there were no such thing as war!

— Josephine Pollard, The History of the United States Told in One-Syllable Words, 1884

In a Word

brabble
v. to quarrel about trifles

Things to Come

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

DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition! That’s the awful part of it. You might think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility. But the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.

HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?

DR. GALL: No one has the courage.

HELENA: Courage!

DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.

HELENA: Oh, Doctor, what’s going to become of people?

DR. GALL: God knows, Madame Helena, it looks to us scientists like the end!

— From Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot

Some Palindromes

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Al_roverso_symfonie_47_Haydn.png

In the minuet in Haydn’s Symphony No. 47, the orchestra plays the same passage forward, then backward.

When Will Shortz challenged listeners to submit word-level palindromes to National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday in 1997, Roxanne Abrams offered the poignant Good little student does plan future, but future plan does student little good.

math palindromes

And Connecticut’s Oxoboxo River offers a four-way palindrome — it reads the same forward and backward both on the page and in a mirror placed horizontally above it.

In a Word

opuscule
n. a musical or literary work of small size

In 1965 poet Aram Saroyan wrote a poem consisting of a single word, lighght. George Plimpton included it in the American Literary Anthology, and Saroyan received a $500 cash award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Perhaps to mock this, in 1972 Dave Morice published Matchbook, a literary magazine whose inch-square pages were stapled inside working matchbooks. Edited by the fictional Joyce Holland, each issue featured nine one-word poems submitted by contributors. Examples:

apocatastasis (Allen Ginsberg)
borken (Keith Abbott)
cerealism (Fletcher Copp)
cosmicpolitan (Morty Sklar)
embooshed (Cinda Wormley)
gulp (Pat Paulsen)
Joyce (Andrei Codrescu)
meeeeeeeeeeeeee (Duane Ackerson)
puppylust (P.J. Casteel)
sixamtoninepm (Kit Robinson)
underwhere (Carol DeLugach)
zoombie (Sheila Heldenbrand)

The longest submission, Trudi Katchmar’s whahavyagotthasgudtareedare, appeared as a fold-out.

“Winter Eve”

Drear fiend: How shall this spay be dent?
I jell you no toque — I do not know.
What can I do but snatch the woe
that falls beyond my pane, and blench
my crows and ted my briny shears?
Now galls another class. I’ll sit
and eye the corm that’s fought in it.
Maces will I fake, and heart my pare.
Is this that sold elf that once I was
with lapped chips and tolling lung?
I hollow sward and tight my bung
for very shame, and yet no cause —
save that the beery witchery
of Life stows grail. Shall I abroad?
Track up my punks? Oh gray to pod
for him who sanders on the wee!
I’ll buff a stag with shiny torts
and soulful hocks, a truthbush too,
perhaps a rook to bead — but no!
my wishes must be dashed. Reports
of danger shake the reaming scare.
Whack against blight! Again that tune,
“A gritty pearl is just like a titty prune”
blows from the fox. I canot bear
this sweetness. Silence is best. I mat
my mistress and my sleazy lumber.
I’ll shake off my toes, for they encumber.
What if I tub my stow? The newt
goes better fakèd to the cot.
I’ll hash my wands or shake a tower,
(a rug of slum? a whiskey sour?)
water my pants in all their plots,
slob a male hairy before I seep —
and dropping each Id on heavy lie,
with none to sing me lullaby,
slop off to dreep, slop off to dreep.

— Robert Morse, quoted in W.H. Auden’s commonplace book A Certain World

In a Word

frustraneous
adj. useless; unprofitable

http://books.google.com/books?id=fOSJACiIgpMC

One Day a Caddy sat in the Long Grass near the Ninth Hole and wondered if he had a Soul. His Number was 27, and he almost had forgotten his Real Name.

As he sat and Meditated, two Players passed him. They were going the Long Round, and the Frenzy was upon them. They followed the Gutta Percha Balls with the intent swiftness of trained Bird Dogs, and each talked feverishly of Brassy Lies, and getting past the Bunker, and Lofting to the Green, and Slicing into the Bramble — each telling his own Game to the Ambient Air, and ignoring what the other Fellow had to say.

As they did the St. Andrews Full Swing for eighty Yards apiece and then Followed Through with the usual Explanations of how it Happened, the Caddy looked at them and Reflected that they were much inferior to his Father.

His Father was too Serious a Man to get out in Mardi Gras Clothes and hammer a Ball from one Red Flag to another.

His Father worked in a Lumber Yard.

He was an Earnest Citizen, who seldom Smiled, and he knew all about the Silver Question and how J. Pierpont Morgan done up a Free People on the Bond Issue.

The Caddy wondered why it was that his Father, a really Great Man, had to shove Lumber all day and could seldom get one Dollar to rub against another, while these superficial Johnnies who played Golf all the Time had Money to Throw at the Birds. The more he Thought the more his Head ached.

MORAL: Don’t try to Account for Anything.

— George Ade, Fables in Slang, 1899

Specialists

In 1970 Dmitri Borgmann and Dwight Ripley compiled a list of “missing words” — foreign words with complex or interesting meanings that have no counterparts in English. I can’t immediately confirm most of these, but they’d certainly be useful words:

DENTERA (Spanish): a setting of the teeth on edge
PAPABILE (Italian): having some chance of becoming Pope
PIECDZIESIECIORUBLOWY (Polish): costing fifty rubles
PREDSVATEBNY (Czech): taking place on the eve of a wedding
KWELDER (Dutch): land on the outside of a dike
EZERNYOLCSZAZNEGYVENNYOLCBAN (Hungarian): in 1848
PASAULVESTURISKS (Lettish): of worldwide significance
MIHRAP (Turkish): a woman still beautiful though no longer young
UBAC (Provençal): the sunless north side of a mountain
HARFENDAZ (Turkish): one who makes insulting remarks to women in the street
PENCELESMEK (Turkish): to lock fingers with another and have a test of strength
MEZABRALIS (Lettish): a revolutionary hiding in a forest
MATAO (Brazilian Portuguese): a jockey who crowds the others against the fence
NEMIMI (Japanese): the ears of one sleeping
YOKOTOJI (Japanese): bound so as to be broader than long — said of a book
TOADEIRA (Portuguese): a harpooned whale that continues to sound

In 2006 the Goethe Institute held a competition to find German words that deserve a place in English. The winner was Fachidiot, literally “subject idiot,” a scholar blinkered by long study: “A one-track specialist still notices what is going on around him in the world which has nothing to do with university. A Fachidiot simply does not, or not anymore.” Runners-up included Backpfeifengesicht, “a face which invites you to slap it”; Kummerspeck (literally, “grief bacon”), “excessive weight gain caused by emotion-related overeating”; and Torschlusspanik (“gate closing panic”), the fear that time is running out to act.

English has some show horses of its own: to groak is to gaze longingly at one who is eating, and a ucalegon is a neighbor whose house is on fire.

(Dmitri Borgmann, “Missing Words,” Word Ways 3:1, February 1970.)

Succinct

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loutherbourg-Spanish_Armada.jpg

Pun fans claim that Sir Francis Drake reported the defeat of the Spanish Armada with a single word: “Cantharides” (an aphrodisiac; hence “The Spanish fly”).

When Sir Charles Napier took the Indian province of Sindh in 1843, he supposedly sent a one-word report to the British war office: Peccavi (Latin for “I have sinned”).

When Lord Dalhousie annexed Oudh in the 1850s, he’s said to have sent a dispatch of a single word: Vovi (I vowed, or “I’ve Oudh”).

And when Lord Clyde captured Lucknow in 1857, he supposedly reported, “Nunc fortunatus sum.”

A dinner guest once bet her friends that she could get Calvin Coolidge to say at least three words during the meal. He told her, “You lose.”

(Thanks, Ted.)

Misc

  • The first child to be vaccinated in Russia was named Vaccinov.
  • Every treasurer of the United States since 1949 has been a woman.
  • 15642 = 1 + 56 + 42
  • up inverted is dn.
  • “Life well spent is long.” — Leonardo

In a Word

inwit
n. reason, intellect, understanding

outwit
n. the faculty of observing the world

Finding Yourself

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

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Choose any word in the first two lines, count its letters, and count forward that number of words. For example, if you choose STAR, which has four letters, you’d count ahead four words, beginning with HOW, to reach WHAT. Count the number of letters in that word and count ahead as before. Continue until you can’t go any further. You’ll always land on YOU in the last line.

See Finding Religion and The Kruskal Count.