In a Word

adj. that leads by or as by the hand

v. to walk before, as an usher

v. to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around


Items requested in the 2000 Baylor College Linguistic Scavenger Hunt:

  1. the word for “cheese” in Estonian
  2. the longest word in English that uses no letter more than once
  3. a nine-letter English word that has only one syllable
  4. the sound that a dog makes in Swedish
  5. the regional word for “drinking fountain” that’s used in Wisconsin
  6. the language that Jesus spoke
  7. the American equivalent of the British word “ex-directory”
  8. five words that are legal plays in Scrabble and that have only two letters, one of which is “x”
  9. the motto of the Klingon Language Institute
  10. identity of the person who said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”
Click for Answer

Tech Talk

Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:

The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.

“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:

Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”

(From The World, May 31, 1893.)

A Narrowing Window

In 2006 I noted this excerpt from Lillie de Hagermann-Lindencrone’s 1912 book In the Courts of Memory:

I sang, and thought I sang very well; but he just looked up into my face with a very quizzical expression, and said, ‘How long have you been singing, Mademoiselle?’

The bolded section is a “pangrammatic window,” a string of naturally occurring text that contains all the letters of the (English) alphabet. This one is 56 letters long.

That was nine years ago. Can we do better? In 2012 a 42-letter example was discovered in Piers Anthony’s novel Cube Route:

‘We are all from Xanth,’ Cube said quickly. ‘Just visiting Phaze. We just want to find the dragon.’

Last year, Jesse Sheidlower wrote a bot that retweets pangrams that it finds on Twitter. Inspired by this, Google software engineer Malcolm Rowe set out to search first Project Gutenberg and then the web for the shortest possible window. Remarkably, he found one of only 36 letters, in a review of the film Magnolia by Todd Ramlow, for PopMatters:

Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain ‘types’ of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.

(The link seems to be down at the moment.)

“I’m pretty impressed by this result,” Rowe writes. “It’s only one letter longer than “The quick brown fox …”, and while that’s not the shortest possible pangram by far, it is one of the more coherent ones.”

(Thanks, Malcolm.)

Ancient Wordplay

The 19th canto of the Sanskrit epic poem Shishupala Vadha is a tour de force of ingenious wordplay, including double meanings, constrained writing, and concrete poetry. The 27th stanza has been called “the most complex and exquisite type of palindrome ever invented” — it produces the same text when read forward, backward, down, or up:

“[That army], which relished battle, contained allies who brought low the bodies and gaits of their various striving enemies, and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments.”

The Babylonian Theodicy is a cuneiform poem of 27 stanzas of 11 lines each. All the sentences in each stanza begin with the same sign, and if these signs are read in order, they produce an acrostic that identifies the author:

a-na-ku sa-ag-gi-il-ki-i-na-am-ub-bi-ib ma-áš-ma-šu ka-ri-bu ša i-li ú šar-ri

“I, Saggil-kīnam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”

See also The Star Gauge. (Thanks, Sujan.)

In a Word

adj. ready for battle; warlike

adj. possessing knowledge

adj. pertaining to a teacher

Among Union Army regiments, the 33rd Illinois became known as the “brains” regiment because it contained so many teachers. “It was stated derisively that the men would not obey orders which were not absolutely correct in syntax and orthography and that men who were discharged from it for mental incapacity, at once secured positions as officers in other regiments.” Many of them came from Illinois State Normal University; of the 97 teachers and pupils on the university’s rolls in 1860-1861, 53 entered the army.

(Charles A. Harper, Development of the Teachers College in the United States, With Special Reference to the Illinois State Normal University, 1935.)

In a Word

n. enrichment

adj. unprofitable

Another puzzle by Yakov Perelman:

“Two fathers gave their two sons some money. One gave his son 150 rubles and the other 100 rubles. When the two sons counted their finances, they found that together they had become richer by only 150 rubles. What is the explanation?”

Click for Answer

In a Word

adj. abusive, foul-mouthed, reviling

In his Recollections of the Civil War, Charles Anderson Dana called Union general Andrew Atkinson Humphreys “one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.” “The men of distinguished and brilliant profanity in the war were General Sherman and General Humphreys — I could not mention any others that could be classed with them. General Logan also was a strong swearer, but he was not a West Pointer: he was a civilian. Sherman and Humphreys would swear to make everything blue when some dispatch had not been delivered correctly or they were provoked.”

In Rex v. Sparling (1722), a leather dresser named James Sparling was alleged in the course of 10 days to “profanely swear fifty-four oaths, and profanely curse one hundred and sixty curses, contra formam statuti.” His conviction was overturned because the charge sheet had failed to list them. “For what is a profane oath or curse is a matter of law, and ought not to be left to the judgment of the witness … it is a matter of great dispute among the learned, what are oaths and what curses.”

When in 1985 a man named Callahan called a California highway patrolman a “fucking asshole,” California Court of Appeal Justice Gerald Brown referred to this phrase as the “Callahan epithet” to avoid having to repeat it continuously, “which arguably would assist its passage into parlor parlance.” And he reversed Callahan’s conviction:

A land as diverse as ours must expect and tolerate an infinite variety of expression. What is vulgar to one may be lyric to another. Some people spew four-letter words as their common speech such as to devalue its currency; their repetition dulls the senses; Billingsgate thus becomes commonplace. Not everyone can be a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan or a Joseph A. Ball. …

Fifty years ago the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ were as shocking to the sensibilities of some people as the Callahan epithet is to others today. The first word in Callahan’s epithet has many meanings. When speaking about coitus, not everyone can be an F.E. Smith (later Earl of Birkenhead) who, in his speech in 1920 in the House of Commons on the Matrimonial Causes Act, referred to ‘that bond by which nature in its ingenious telepathy has contrived to secure and render agreeable the perpetuation of the species.’


Hamlet’s nunnery soliloquy in “Americanese,” by critic and satirist A.E. Wilson:

To quit or not to quit; that’s what I’m up against
Ought I to stick the darn thing out
And let old man Fortune make a monkey of me
Or take a crack against this brand of bellyaches
And swipe the lot of them? To pass out; to sleep
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The katzenjammer and all the other things that give us the willies.
I’ll tell the world it would be better. To pass out; to hit the hay;
To hit the hay; perhaps to dream: Gee! that would be tough;
For while we’re sleeping in the boneyard what dreams may come when we have handed in our cheques,
That makes you think: There’s the respect
That makes your life just one long tough break
For who would stand for a kick in the pants or a sock in the jaw
The panning of some ritzy guy
The pain in the neck when some frail has given you the icy mitt
When he might stage a fade out with a bare rib tickler …

From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982. I’m not sure when Wilson wrote it — to judge from some of the expressions, I think it might be from the 1930s.

08/26/2015 Reader Ed Kitson sent some similar pieces: an Australian ancestor from 1917, travesties from 1810 and 1849, and an 1822 ditty. The mother of all parodies is still the Skinhead Hamlet, mentioned here in 2012 and still stupendously NSFW.

“The Technical Version”

‘Twas the nocturnal segment of the diurnal period preceding the annual Yuletide celebration, and throughout our place of residence, kinetic activity was not in evidence among possessors of this potential, including that species of domestic rodent knows as Mus musculus.

Hosiery was meticulously suspended from the forward edge of the wood-burning caloric apparatus, pursuant to our anticipatory pleasure regarding an imminent visitation from an eccentric philanthropist among whose folkloric appellations is the honorific title of St. Nicholas.

The prepubescent siblings, comfortably ensconced in their respective accommodations of repose, were experiencing subconscious visual hallucinations of variegated fruit confections moving rhythmically through their cerebrums.

My conjugal partner and I, attired in our nocturnal head coverings, were about to take slumbrous advantage of the hibernal darkness when upon the avenaceous exterior portion of the grounds there ascended such a cacophony of dissonance that I felt compelled to arise with alacrity from my place of repose for the purpose of ascertaining the precise source thereof.

Hastening to the casement, I forthwith opened the barriers sealing this fenestration, noting thereupon that the lunar brilliance without, reflected as it was on the surface of a recent crystalline precipitation, might be said to rival that of the solar meridian itself — thus permitting my incredulous optical sensory organs to behold a miniature airborne runnered conveyance drawn by eight diminutive specimens of the genus Rangifer, piloted by a minuscule aged chauffer so ebullient and nimble that it became instantly apparent to me that he was indeed our anticipated caller.

With his ungulate motive power travelling at what may possibly have been more vertiginous velocity than patriotic alar predators, he vociferated loudly, expelled breath musically through contracted labia, and addressed each of the octet by his or her respective cognomen — “Now Dasher, now Dancer …” et al. — guiding them to the uppermost exterior level of our abode, through which structure I could readily distinguish the concatenations of each of the 32 cloven pedal extremities.

As I retracted my cranium from its erstwhile location, and was performing a 180-degree pivot, our distinguished visitant achieved — with utmost celerity and via a downward leap — entry by way of the smoke passage.

He was clad entirely in animal pelts soiled by the ebony residue from the oxidations of carboniferous fuels which had accumulated on the walls thereof. His resemblance to a street vendor I attributed largely to the plethora of assorted playthings which he bore dorsally in a commodious cloth receptacle.

His orbs were scintillant with reflected luminosity, while his submaxillary dermal indentations gave every evidence of engaging amiability. The capillaries of his malar regions and nasal appurtenance were engorged with blood that suffused the subcutaneous layers, the former approximating the coloration of Albion’s floral emblem, the latter that of the Prunus avium, or sweet cherry.

His amusing sub- and supralabials resembled nothing so much as a common loop knot, and their ambient hirsute facial adornment appeared like small tabular and columnar crystals of frozen water. Clenched firmly between his incisors was a smoking piece whose gray fumes, forming a tenuous ellipse about his occiput, were suggestive of a decorative seasonal circlet of holly. His visage was wider than it was high, and when he waxed audibly mirthful, his corpulent abdominal region undulated in the manner of impectinated fruit syrup in a hemispherical container.

He was, in short, neither more nor less than an obese, jocund, superannuated gnome, the optical perception of whom rendered me visibly frolicsome despite every effort to refrain from so being.

By rapidly lowering and then raising one eyelid and rotating his head slightly to one side, he indicated that trepidation on my part was groundless. Without utterance and with dispatch, he commenced filling the aforementioned appended hosiery with various articles of merchandise extracted from a dorsally transported cloth receptacle. Upon completion of this task, he executed an abrupt about-face, placed a single manual digit in lateral juxtaposition to his olfactory organ, inclined his cranium forward in a gesture of leave-taking, and forthwith affected his egress by renegotiating (in reverse) the smoke passage.

He then propelled himself in a short vector onto his conveyance, directed a musical expulsion of air through his contracted oral sphincter to the antlered quadrupeds of burden, and proceeded to soar aloft in a movement hitherto observable chiefly among the seed-bearing portions of a common weed. But I overheard his parting exclamation, audible immediately prior to his vehiculation beyond the limits of visibility: “Ecstatic yuletide to the plenary constituency, and to that selfsame assemblage, my sincerest wishes for a salubriously beneficial and gratifyingly pleasurable period between sunset and dawn!”

(Author unknown)