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.)
adj. having a face swollen from weeping
n. an inconsolably bereaved woman, a weeping woman
adj. used in salads
v. to snarl back
adj. of, pertaining to, or proper to winter
adj. of or belonging to winter
n. one who is ignorant
n. a stupid person
n. a mistake due to ignorance
adj. that does not think
adj. lacking wit or sense
n. gross ignorance or stupidity
adj. knowing little; ignorant
n. an opponent of sloth or stupidity
adj. on one’s knees
n. a marriage suit
A fragment from Robert Frost’s notebook on “Democracy”:
Cancellation Club. A mens club for rendering womens vote ineffective by voting the other way. One woman said No matter if her vote was offset. She only voted to assert herself — not to win elections.
A word-level palindrome by Allan Miller (from Mad Amadeus Sued a Madam):
MAYBE GOD CAN KNOW ALL WE DO; WE ALL KNOW, CAN GOD? MAYBE …
Detractors of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody said that three of the state’s towns had been named for him: Peabody, Marblehead, and Athol.
“I read the Tchechov aloud. I had read one of the stories myself and it seemed to me nothing. But read aloud, it was a masterpiece. How was that?” — Katherine Mansfield, journal, 1922
Dryden’s epitaph on his wife:
Here lies my wife, here let her lie;
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.
n. honouring with one’s company
William Cobbett, a writer who was to plague Noah for many years, probably invented one piece of Websterian apocrypha. Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Noah had cultivated, supposedly met him upon his arrival and said: ‘How do you do, my dear friend. I congratulate you on your arrival in Philadelphia.’
‘Sir,’ Webster allegedly replied, ‘you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.’
— John S. Morgan, Noah Webster, 1975
v. to be particularly quarrelsome
n. a quarrel or argument
n. the raising of quibbles
n. one who constantly contradicts his companions
n. the growing old together
The English scholar Alcuin devised this remarkable acrostic poem in the ninth century. The text can be read in conventional lines of Latin, and additional phrases are embedded in a symmetrical arrangement of lines that represent the cross inscribed upon the world:
Horizontal, top and bottom:
Crux decus es mundi Iessu de sanguine sancta (“Cross, you are the glory of the world, in Jesus’ blood sanctified”)
Suscipe sic talem rubicumdam celsa coronam (“Accept, exalted cross, from me this scarlet crown”)
Vertical, left and right:
Crux pia vera salus partes in quatuor orbis (“Pious cross, true salvation in the four corners of the world”)
Alma teneto tuam Christo dominane coronam (“Beneficent, take your crown, Christ being the Lord”)
Rector in orbe tuis sanavit saecla sigillis (“The ruler of the world saved generations by your sign”)
Surge lavanda tuae sunt saecula fonte fidei (“Rise, the world is cleansed in the font of faith”)
The diamond, representing the world (whose four corners are referenced in the vertical line on the left):
Salve sancta rubens, fregisti vincula mundi (“Hail holy scarlet, you have shattered the world’s shackles”)
Signa valete novis reserata salutibus orbi (“Wonders are manifest, revealed anew to the world in saving works”)
A translation of the full text:
Cross, you are the glory of the world, in Jesus’ blood sanctified.
God the king from the cross conveyed heaven’s judgment.
A victor he reigns, destroying evil and conquering the enemy,
Christ the great sacrifice nailed on the cross for us.
The shepherd by dying redeemed his sheep with his healing right hand.
Glorious, holy salvation from the venerable tree,
he seized the prize, shrugging off the ties of flesh.
Though in bonds the highest king freed us, and he himself
giving his life to the cross triumphed over death,
The kingdom of heaven gaped when the world’s enemy was destroyed.
The sign will be more manifest and all good people will wear it,
praising it with all strength; let all discern more profoundly
so that they may see how many his holy passion frees
from eternal sorrow, and see one thrown down by time
to heal those oppressed by the enemy’s torments; there
may the highest and true Joseph now be our salvation,
who suffered high upon the cross such that error can’t seduce
and poison men and drag them from the light of faith.
The ruler of the world saved generations by your sign.
You, my life, my salvation! For you alone my voice composes hymns,
and shall always sing the highest songs, clear and plain
with the plectrum; for David famous for his song
proves that it is proper for us to testify holiness continually
in elaborate style — accept that which I have just begun, O Christ supernal,
true salvation, great sufferer, you sacred and holy light. Now
the secular nations sing the beneficent sign of the cross,
all the earth trembles and in one accord proclaims
the fame of the cross. In prayer it reveals its inmost heart.
Now hear, vain men, confounded in evil:
The almighty shines forth. May blessed faith fill your hearts
and the serpent not drive them back to their old ways.
The highest and most faithful redeemer has restored us
to his kingdom, and has conquered by this sign the obdurate one,
toppling warlike Satan from the place he hazarded to rule.
Glorious cross, the world should loose its prayers to you.
Accept, exalted cross, from me this scarlet crown.
(From Monumenta Germaniae Historica, part one, 1880, and Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, eds., Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, 2013. Thanks, Brandon.)
Finnegans Wake is punctuated by ten thunderclaps, which occur at moments of crisis in the text. “A situation is presented, developed, and subjected to increasing stress until, with the thunder, a collapse, and suddenly a complementary situation that was latent in the first is seen to be in place,” writes scholar Eric McLuhan.
Like everything in Joyce, the claps’ meaning is open to question, but they’re not arbitrary: Each of the first nine words contains exactly 100 letters, and the tenth has 101. Joyce, who called thunder “perfect language,” had apparently adjusted the spelling of the thunderclaps as the book took shape: McLuhan found tick marks in Joyce’s galley proofs, “the only evidence of actual letter-counting I have found in any of the manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, and galleys.”
(Eric McLuhan, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, 1997.)
The Indonesian word for water is air.
The Czech word for guest is host.
The Basque word for cold is hotz.
The Hebrew word for she is he.
(Thanks, Alec and Daniel.)
“The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham,” wrote Mark Twain. “Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: ‘Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-chief of the Police Department,’ yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble: ‘Mrs.-late-commander-in-chief-of-the-police-department’s-widow-Smith.'” He gives this anecdote in his autobiography:
A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage — Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter — whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with beaming face. ‘I have captured the Beutelratte,’ said he. ‘Which one?’ said the mayor; ‘we have several.’ ‘The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.’ ‘Which attentäter are you talking about?’ ‘About the Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutterattentäter.’ ‘Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?’
He calls the long word “a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language.”
n. a piece of schoolwork imposed as a punishment
n. speaking or talking distance, voice-range
Inhabitants of La Gomera, a small mountainous island in the Canary group, use a whistled language called the Silbo to communicate over great distances. “This is a form of telephony inferior to ours as regards range, but superior to it in so far as the only apparatus required is a sound set of teeth and a good pair of lungs,” noted Glasgow University phoneticist André Classe in New Scientist in 1958. “The normal carrying power is up to about four kilometres when conditions are good, over twice as much in the case of an exceptional whistler operating under the most favourable circumstances.”
n. the cultivation of an unusually and enviably excellent lawn