In An Encyclopedia of Swearing (2006), University of the Witwatersrand linguist Geoffrey Hughes notes that terms of vehement personal abuse seem to attach disproportionately to the male sex:
In his analysis, even terms derived from female anatomy are applied to men rather than women (at least in British usage). Terms such as bugger, motherfucker, and sod[omite] understandably derive from sexual role, but why are devil, fucker, moron, and cretin applied generally to men and not women?
“All the indeterminate terms, such as bastard, idiot, and shit, which should logically be ‘bisexual’ in application, are invariably applied only to males,” Hughes writes. (Also, strangely, there seems to be no vehement term of abuse that’s used freely of both sexes.) “However, the historical perspective shows one significant trend, namely that several of the terms, like bitch and sow, were first used of males (or of both sexes) and only later applied exclusively to women.”
When Canada introduced its 1-dollar coin in 1987, it became known as the “loonie” for the loon on its back.
When the Royal Canadian Mint introduced the 2-dollar coin in 1996, Canadians tried hard to find a comparable nickname. Though “toonie” or “twoonie” eventually won out, the list of failed suggestions included “doubloonie,” “doozie,” and the charming “moonie.”
Why moonie? Because the coin depicts the queen “with a bear behind.”
n. a small cannon fired from the back of a camel
Birder William Young notes that hobbyists who look for wild birds tend to identify species as much by their songs and calls as by their plumage. One way to memorize the calls is to translate them into familiar words and phrases. “Just as many people cannot remember lyrics to popular songs without singing the melody,” he writes, “many birders cannot remember bird songs and calls without thinking of mnemonic phrases.” Examples:
White-throated sparrow: Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody
Black-throated green warbler: trees, trees, murmuring trees
Black-throated blue warbler: I’m so la-zy
Olive-sided flycatcher: Quick, free beer!
White-eyed vireo: Pick up the beer check quick
Song sparrow: Maids maids maids pick up the tea kettle kettle kettle
American goldfinch: potato chip
Barred owl: Madame, who cooks for you?
Brown pigeon: Didja walk? Didja walk?
American robin: cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily
White-crowned sparrow: Poor JoJo missed his bus
Ovenbird: teacher, TEACHER, TEACHER
Red-eyed vireo: Here I am. Where are you?
Common yellowthroat: Which is it? Which is it? Which is it?
MacLeay’s honeyeater: a free TV
Common potoo: POO-or me, O, O, O, O
Inca dove: no hope
Brown quail: not faair, not faair
Little wattlebird: fetch the gun, fetch the gun
The California quail says Chicago, the long-tailed manakin says Toledo, and the rufous-browed peppershrike says I’M-A-RU-FOUS-PEP-PER-SHRIKE. “Once when I was staying at [birding author Graham Pizzey’s] home, a Willie-wagtail sang outside my bedroom window around 3 A.M. and seemed to say I’m trying to an-NOY you.” Young’s full article appears in the Winter 2003 issue of Verbatim.
adv. drop by drop
adv. to the last drop
adj. falling in drops
n. a small amount or portion
By Colorado classics teacher Jeremy Boor:
MP3, lyrics, and chords are on his website.
Morse code palindromes, contributed by reader Dave Lawrence:
ANNEXING ·- -· -· · -··- ·· -· --·
BEEFIEST -··· · · ··-· ·· · ··· -
DEFOREST -·· · ··-· --- ·-· · ··· -
ESTHETES · ··· - ···· · - · ···
FINAGLED ··-· ·· -· ·- --· ·-·· · -··
HEARTIES ···· · ·- ·-· - ·· · ···
HECTARES ···· · -·-· - ·- ·-· · ···
INDEBTED ·· -· -·· · -··· - · -··
INTERNAL ·· -· - · ·-· -· ·- ·-··
INTUITED ·· -· - ··- ·· - · -··
RECENTER ·-· · -·-· · -· - · ·-·
SATIATES ··· ·- - ·· ·- - · ···
SEVENTHS ··· · ···- · -· - ···· ···
SHEEPISH ··· ···· · · ·--· ·· ··· ····
SOPRANOS ··· --- ·--· ·-· ·- -· --- ···
SUBHEADS ··· ··- -··· ···· · ·- -·· ···
WAVERING ·-- ·- ···- · ·-· ·· -· --·
WRECKING ·-- ·-· · -.-· -.- ·· -· --·
ANTICKING ·- -· - ·· -·-· -·- ·· -· --·
FOOTSTOOL ··-· --- --- - ··· - --- --- ·-··
FRESHENED ··-· ·-· · ··· ···· · -· · -··
INCIDENCE ·· -· -·-· ·· -·· · -· -·-· ·
SATURATES ··· ·- - ··- ·-· ·- - · ···
SIDELINES ··· ·· -·· · ·-·· ·· -· · ···
INITIALLED ·· -· ·· - ·· ·- ·-·· ·-·· · -··
INTERSTICE ·· -· - · ·-· ··· - ·· -·-· ·
RESEARCHER ·-· · ··· · ·- ·-· -·-· ···· · ·-·
WINTERTIME ·-- ·· -· - · ·-· - ·· -- ·
ANTIQUATING ·- -· - ·· --·- ··- ·- - ·· -· --·
INTERPRETED ·· -· - · ·-· ·--· ·-· · - · -··
PROTECTORATE ·--· ·-· --- - · -·-· - --- ·-· ·- - ·
INTRANSIGENCE ·· -· - ·-· ·- -· ··· ·· --· · -· -·-· ·
He notes that, perhaps fittingly, the word with the longest run of dots is OBSESSIVE, with 18: --- -··· ··· · ··· ··· ·· ···- ·
v. to make wet and dirty with rain and mud
Our change climatic
We think acrobatic
And sigh for a land that is better —
But the German will say,
In a very dry way,
That the weather with him is still Wetter.
— J.R. Joy, Yale Record, 1899
- Seattle is closer to Finland than to England.
- Is a candle flame alive?
- ABANDON is an anagram of A AND NO B.
- tan-1(1) + tan-1(2) + tan-1(3) = π
- “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” — Carl Andre
Detractors of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody said that three of the state’s towns had been named for him: Peabody, Marblehead, and Athol.
adj. having yellow hair
adj. having smooth hair
adj. having wavy hair
adj. caring for the condition or appearance of the hair
adj. having the head adorned with flowers
Ernest Hemingway published this “blank verse” in his high school literary magazine in 1916:
Get it? David Morice followed up with this “punctuation poem” in Word Ways in February 2012:
% , & —
+ . ? /
+ $ [ \
It’s a limerick:
Percent comma ampersand dash
Plus period question mark slash
Quotation mark colon
Plus dollar sign bracket backslash
LEG and RUN share the same “bit” pattern in Morse code:
·-·· · --·
·-· ··- -·
So do EARN and URN (which are also homophones):
· ·- ·-· -·
··- ·-· -·
(Discovered by Philip Cohen.)
UPDATE: Reader Dave Lawrence wrote a script to find more of these. He found 2,900, including these highlights:
ArnoldC, a language devised by Finnish computer programmer Lauri Hartikka, assigns programming functions to catch phrases from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Some keywords:
False: I LIED
True: NO PROBLEMO
If: BECAUSE I’M GOING TO SAY PLEASE
EndIf: YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR LOGIC
While: STICK AROUND
MultiplicationOperator: YOU’RE FIRED
DivisionOperator: HE HAD TO SPLIT
EqualTo: YOU ARE NOT YOU YOU ARE ME
GreaterThan: LET OFF SOME STEAM BENNET
Or: CONSIDER THAT A DIVORCE
And: KNOCK KNOCK
DeclareMethod: LISTEN TO ME VERY CAREFULLY
MethodArguments: I NEED YOUR CLOTHES YOUR BOOTS AND YOUR MOTORCYCLE
Return: I’LL BE BACK
EndMethodDeclaration: HASTA LA VISTA, BABY
AssignVariableFromMethodCall: GET YOUR ASS TO MARS
ReadInteger: I WANT TO ASK YOU A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS AND I WANT TO HAVE THEM ANSWERED IMMEDIATELY
AssignVariable: GET TO THE CHOPPER
SetValue: HERE IS MY INVITATION
EndAssignVariable: ENOUGH TALK
ParseError: WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO WRONG
This program prints the string “hello world”:
IT'S SHOWTIME TALK TO THE HAND "hello world" YOU HAVE BEEN TERMINATED
n. a shipwrecked person
v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute
BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.
— The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828
When the letters in ETCH are advanced uniformly through the alphabet, they produce PENS. Likewise FUSION produces LAYOUT, INKIER produces PURPLY, SLEEP produces BUNNY, and HOTEL produces OVALS. The same technique produces the phrases SAD BEING EMPTY and MY DREAM MAN:
This must mean something.
The final movement on John Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme is a “musical narration” of a devotional poem that Coltrane included in the album’s liner notes — he put the handwritten poem on a music stand and “played” it as if it were music.
“Coltrane’s hushed delivery sounds deliberately speechlike,” write Ashley Kahn in his 2003 history of the album. “He hangs on to the ends of phrases, repeats them as if for emphasis. He is in fact ‘reading’ through his horn.”
The hidden psalm was marked by New York musicians for decades before Rutgers University musicologist Lewis Porter presented a formal analysis to the American Musicological Society in 1980. “You will find that he plays right to the final ‘Amen’ and then finishes,” he writes in his 1997 biography of the saxophonist. “There are no extra notes up to that point. You will have to make a few adjustments in the poem, however: Near the beginning where it reads, ‘Help us resolve our fears and weaknesses,’ he skips the next line, goes on to ‘In you all things are possible,’ then plays ‘Thank you God’ … towards the end he leaves out ‘I have seen God.'”
“I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it,” Coltrane had said. “I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”
The lyrics in Italian singer Adriano Celentano’s 1972 single “Prisencolinensinainciusol” sound like American English, but they’re gibberish.
“Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did,” he told NPR in 2014. “So at a certain point, because I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”
It reached number 4 on the Belgian charts in 1973.
n. one’s own handwriting or autograph; a style or character of writing
What is this? It’s the signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. When Lew was nominated for the post in January 2013, it threatened to appear on all U.S. paper currency for the duration of his tenure.
Barack Obama said, “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency, should he be confirmed as secretary of the Treasury.” He did so — the current signature is below.
Lew’s predecessor, Timothy Geithner, had a similarly incomprehensible signature and produced a more legible version for the currency. “I took handwriting in the third grade in New Delhi, India,” he said, “so I probably did not get the best instruction on handwriting.”
n. one who lives near the sea
adj. one who lives beyond mountains
n. an inhabitant of a plain, a dweller in a plain
adj. lying between rivers
What’s unusual about the number 313,340,350,000,000,000,499? Its English name, THREE HUNDRED THIRTEEN QUINTILLION THREE HUNDRED FORTY QUADRILLION THREE HUNDRED FIFTY TRILLION FOUR HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, contains these letter counts:
This makes the name a perfect “snowball,” in the language of wordplay enthusiasts. In exploring this phenomenon for the November 2012 issue of Word Ways, Eric Harshbarger and Mike Keith found hundreds of thousands of solutions among very large numbers, but the example above is “shockingly small compared to all other known SH [snowball histogram] numbers,” they write. “It seems very likely that this is the smallest SH number of any order, but a proof of this fact, even with computer assistance, seems difficult.”
Two other pretty findings from their article:
224,000,000,000,525,535, or TWO HUNDRED TWENTY-FOUR QUADRILLION FIVE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED THIRTY-FIVE, produces a “growing/melting” snowball:
And 520,636,000,000,757,000, or FIVE HUNDRED TWENTY QUADRILLION SIX HUNDRED THIRTY-SIX TRILLION SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY-SEVEN THOUSAND, produces the first 18 digits of π:
“This idea can also be applied to arbitrary text, not just number names,” they write. “Can you find a sentence in Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice whose letter distribution is a snowball or is interesting in some other way? Such possibilities are left for future consideration.”
(Eric Harshbarger and Mike Keith, “Number Names With a Snowball Letter Distribution,” Word Ways, November 2012.)
adj. half again as large
adj. not tall
Born in 1915, giant Henry M. Mullins partnered with Tommy Lowe and little Stanley Rosinski to form the vaudeville act Lowe, Hite and Stanley. Of Mullins, who stood 7’6-3/4″ and weighed 280 pounds, doctor Charles D. Humberd said, “It is indeed amazing to watch so vast a personage doing a whirlwind acrobatic act. … He dances, fast and furiously, and engages in a comedy knock-about ‘business’ that would be found strenuous by any trained ‘Physical culturist.’ … He is alert, intelligent, well read, affable and friendly.” The act continued until Rosinski’s death in 1962.
n. a rolling toward
“The ball was my idea,” said Steven Spielberg of the boulder that threatens Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I don’t even know where I came up with it — it might have been deeply in my subconscious from something I saw when I was a kid — but I just said, ‘You know, at some point some huge boulder should start chasing Indy, and it almost squashes him three or four times until he gets out of the cave.'”
The scene was shot 10 times, with the crew replacing fallen stalactites each time. “I didn’t know it was gonna look as good as it did until the day [production designer] Norman Reynolds showed me that he had actually made a boulder that was something like 22 feet in circumference,” Spielberg said. “So I didn’t have Harrison step in the shot until I was completely convinced it was safe. Once we’d rehearsed it several times with a stuntman, Harrison did every shot himself.”
When Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had met in January 1978 to brainstorm ideas, it was quickly clear that Lucas already had an articulate vision of the story. At one point Kasdan asked Lucas why he didn’t direct the film himself. He said, “Because then I’d never get to see it.”
(From J.W. Rinzler, The Complete Making of Indiana Jones, 2008.)
In his landmark paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Claude Shannon experimented with a series of stochastic approximations to English. He started with a sample message in which each of the 26 letters and the space appear with equal probability:
XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ ZLPWCFWKCYJ FFJEYVKCQSGHYD QPAAMKBZAACIBZLHJQD.
In the next message, the symbols’ frequencies are weighted according to how commonly they appear in English text (for example, E is more likely than W):
OCRO HLI RGWR NMIELWIS EU LL NBNESEBYA TH EEI ALHENHTTPA OOBTTVA NAH BRL.
In the third he linked each letter to its predecessor: After one letter is recorded, the next is chosen in a manner weighted according to how frequently such a pair appears in natural English (a “digram”):
ON IE ANTSOUTINYS ARE T INCTORE ST BE S DEAMY ACHIN D ILONASIVE TUCOOWE AT TEASONARE FUSO TIZIN ANDY TOBE SEACE CTISBE.
In the fourth he applied the same idea to sets of three letters (“trigrams”):
IN NO IST LAT WHEY CRATICT FROURE BIRS GROCID PONDENOME OF DEMONSTURES OF THE REPTAGIN IS REGOACTIONA OF CRE.
In the fifth he shifts from letters to words. Words appear in a manner weighted by their frequency in English (without regard to the prior word):
REPRESENTING AND SPEEDILY IS AN GOOD APT OR COME CAN DIFFERENT NATURAL HERE HE THE A IN CAME THE TO OF TO EXPERT GRAY COME TO FURNISHES THE LINE MESSAGE HAD BE THESE.
Finally, he applies the digram technique to words — each word is chosen based on the frequency with which pairs of words appear in English:
THE HEAD AND IN FRONTAL ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER THAT THE CHARACTER OF THIS POINT IS THEREFORE ANOTHER METHOD FOR THE LETTERS THAT THE TIME OF WHO EVER TOLD THE PROBLEM FOR AN UNEXPECTED.
Already this is starting to look like English — Shannon notes that the 10-word phrase ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER THAT THE CHARACTER OF THIS could find a home in a natural sentence without much strain.
He had to stop there, as this was 1948 and he was using paper books. “But the modern availability of computing power has made carrying out such calculations automatically a near-trivial task for reasonably-sized bodies of sample text,” writes UC-Santa Cruz computer scientist Noah Wardrip-Fruin. “As Shannon also pointed out, the stochastic processes he described are comonly considered in terms of Markov models. And, interestingly, the first application of Markov models was also linguistic and literary — modeling letter sequences in Pushkin’s poem ‘Eugene Onegin.’ But Shannon was the first to bring this mathematics to bear meaningfully on communication, and also the first to use it to perform text-generation play.”
(Noah Wardrip-Fruin, “Playable Media and Textual Instruments,” in Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer, eds., The Aesthetics of Net Literature, 2007.)