In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:
- bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
- balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
- balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
- bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.
“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”
In Syntactic Structures (1957), to illustrate the difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one, Noam Chomsky offered the expression Colorless green ideas sleep furiously as an example of a grammatical sentence that’s nonsense.
Naturally, some readers took this as a challenge — within months, students at Stanford had set up a competition to show that the expression could be understood as a meaningful sentence. Here’s one of the prizewinning entries:
It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
More entries are here. From David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, 2011.
adj. producing fever
The 1895 meeting of the Association of American Physicians saw a sobering report: Abraham Jacobi presented the case of a young man whose temperature had reached 149 degrees.
Nonsense, objected William Henry Welch. Such an observation was impossible. He recalled a similar report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 31, 1891) in which a Dr. Galbraith of Omaha had found a temperature of 171 degrees in a young woman.
“I do not undertake to explain in what way deception was practised, but there is no doubt in my mind that there was deception,” he said. “Such temperatures as those recorded in Dr. Galbraith’s and Dr. Jacobi’s cases are far above the temperature of heat rigor of mammalian muscle, and are destructive of the life of animal cells.”
Jacobi defended himself: Perhaps medicine simply hadn’t developed a theory to account for such things. But another physician told Welch that Galbraith’s case at least had a perfectly satisfactory explanation — another doctor had caught her in “the old-fashioned trick of heating the thermometer by a hot bottle in the bed.”
v. to help or aid
v. to come to the aid of
v. to remove obstructions
n. a person who helps or provides aid
“Suppose someone to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.”
— Andrew Ingraham, Swain School Lectures, 1903
n. judgment; a judicial sentence; penalty
William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.
Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.
n. a period of 24 consecutive hours
adj. lasting for or comprising a night and a day
In 1881 Puck published four faces assembled from printing characters and announced that its compositors intended to surpass “all the cartoonists that ever walked.”
Six years later, in an essay entitled “For Brevity and Clarity,” Ambrose Bierce offered a character to make irony clear in written text:
In April 1969, New York Times interviewer Alden Whitman asked Vladimir Nabokov, “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?” He answered, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”
n. the reverse of goodness; unkindness
n. harm, damage; evil
adj. incapable of repentance
adj. incapable of weeping
n. a list of written stupidities
Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:
- He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
- Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
- Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
- Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
- With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
- Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
- So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
- Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
- O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
- The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
- Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
- Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
- Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
- Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)
In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”
Bilingual palindromes, offered by Luc Étienne in Palindromes Bilingues, 1984:
- Mon Eva rêve ton image, bidet! = Ted, I beg, am I not ever a venom?
- Untrodden russet! = T’es sûr, Ned dort nu?
- Sir, I ate merely on it. = Tino, y le remet à Iris.
- Isadora rêve = Ever a rod as I?
- Ton minet t’adora = A rod, at ten, I’m not!
- Crop, editor, not any Bob = Bob, y n’a ton rôti de porc!
I offer you a sentence which does not indeed read backward and forward the same, but reads forward in English and backward in Latin,– making sense, it seems to me, both ways; granting that it is hardly classical Latin.
Anger? ‘t is safe never. Bar it! Use love!
Evoles ut ira breve nefas sit; regna!
Which being freely translated, may mean,
Rise up, in order that your anger may be but a brief madness; control it!
— John Townsend Trowbridge, ed., Our Young Folks, 1866
This poem takes a pretty dark view of marriage — unless you read only the alternate lines:
That man must lead a happy life
Who’s free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.
Adam could find no solid peace
When Eve was given for a mate;
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.
In all the female race appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
In woman never did reside.
What tongue is able to unfold
The failings that in woman dwell;
The worths in woman we behold
Are almost imperceptible.
Confusion take the man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness,
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of earthly blessedness.
— W.S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
n. a midday rest
Some favorite words of Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall, from his Limits of Language (2006):
- klunen (Dutch): “to walk or run overland with skates on (usually from one body of frozen water to another)”
- aɣone (Kuot): “to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle”
- fringsen (German): “to steal coal from railway wagons or potatoes from fields in order to survive”
- knedlikový (Czech): “rather partial to dumplings”
- qamigartuk (Yup’ik): “he goes seal-hunting with a small sled and kayak in the spring”
- baleŋga (Chavacano): “excessive swinging of arms while walking”
- kallsup (Swedish): “a gulp of water that a bather accidentally inhales”
- googly (English): “(of an off-breaking cricket ball) disguised by the bowler with an apparent leg-break action”
Gunwinggu, spoken in northwestern Australia, uses different verbs to describe the hopping of a black wallaroo (Macropus bernardus) (kamurlbardme), the hopping of an agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) (kalurlhlurme), the hopping of a male antilopine wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) (kamawudme), and the hopping of a female antilopine wallaroo (kadjalwahme).
adj. having a mane
Oliver Herford said that at the New York Public Library one “learned the meaning of the expression ‘reading between the lions.'”
n. the act of making or becoming progressively more miserable
adj. bringing sorrow, mournful, gloomy
n. a hoarder of books
In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:
This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.
n. food, provisions
n. the art or science of cookery
n. an expert or skilled eater
Ernst Havlik’s (1981) Lexikon der Onomatopoien is an entire dictionary consisting only of comic strip sound effects. It contains an introductory analysis, 2222 onomatopoeic items, and 111 illustrations. The section on kissing, for instance, contains glork, schmatz, schuic, shluk, smack, smurp and shmersh — quite a poetic collection in itself. More unexpected are woin and töff, both of which are intended to represent the sound of a car horn. A breaking car apparently goes tata in at least one source, and from a ‘scientific laboratory,’ one gets to hear foodle, grink, and sqwunk. Perhaps even more interesting are the sounds floop, flop and flomp, which represent the sound of a bra being taken off. Anyone prejudiced against the genre as such, may see it as a confirmation that the sections on ‘violence’ take up 17 pages, while that devoted to ‘thinking’ consists of a mere five lines.
— Mikael Parkvall, Limits of Language, 2006
Eugene Ulrich offered this paragraph in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. What’s unusual about it?
The problem with antisocial sorority girls is men and pals. Such girls may wish for neurotic men to go with them for laughs. But male pals lend ornament, worn for handy visual flair. So the pals it is; they form an authentic proxy when visible, and prudish girls may also dispel their own rigid neuroticism with such chaps.
adj. living in exile
Homeless, exiled, I climb Sin-Ping tower.
It is late on in the dying year,
The sun is declining in the sky
And the dark river runs gloomy and slow.
A cloud moves across the forests on the mountain;
Wild geese fly off down the river.
Up here I can see for ten thousand miles,
But I do not see the end of my sorrows.
— Li Po, banished from the Chinese capital, circa 757
SWIMS is rotationally symmetric — it reads the same right side up and upside down.
Walter Penney of Greenbelt, Md., offered this poser in the August 1969 issue of Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Below are five groups of English words. Each group appears also in a foreign language. What are the languages?
- aloud, angel, hark, inner, lover, room, taken, wig
- alas, atlas, into, manner, pore, tie, vain, valve
- ail, ballot, enter, four, lent, lit, mire, taller
- banjo, chosen, hippo, pure, same, share, tempo, tendon
- ago, cur, dare, fur, limes, mane, probe, undo