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Unprepossessing English town names:

  • Bishop’s Itchington
  • Brokenborough
  • Great Snoring
  • Mockbeggar
  • Turners Puddle
  • Pett Bottom
  • Twelveheads
  • Ugley
  • Nether Wallop
  • Nasty
  • Wetwang
  • Blubberhouses
  • Yelling

Charles Dickens called the chipper-sounding Chelmsford “the dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the earth.”

In a Word

adj. somewhat fat and squat

adj. short and fat

Words and Numbers

The name of any integer can be transformed into a number by setting A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.: ONE = 15145, TWO = 202315, THREE = 2081855, and so on.

Because every English number name ends in D (4), E (5), L (12), N (14), O (15), R (18), T (20), X (24), or Y (25), no such transformation will produce a prime number.

But in Spanish, which uses 27 letters, both SESENTA (60) = 20520514211 and MIL SETENTA (1070) = 1391220521514211 yield primes.

(Thanks, Claudio.)

In a Word

v. to spend time in the country

Bent Handles

Unusual names collected by CUNY onomasticist Leonard R.N. Ashley for What’s in a Name? (1989) — these are “guaranteed to be real names of real people”:

  • Memory D. Orange
  • Fice Mork
  • Lovely Worlds
  • Aage Glue
  • April Zipes
  • Pink Brown
  • E. Pluribus Ewbanks
  • Tempus Fugit
  • Original Bug
  • Zita Ann Apathy
  • Olney Nicewonger
  • Oscar Asparagus
  • Aphrodite Chuckass
  • Otto Flotto
  • Jack Bienstock
  • Dallas Geese
  • Peculiar Smith
  • Ima June Bugg
  • Tony Fiasco
  • F. Peavey Heffelfinger
  • A. Toxin Worm
  • Wanton Bump
  • Pearl Ruby Diamond
  • Another Smith
  • Tufton V. Beamish
  • Buncha Love
  • Katz Meow

A. Morron served as commissioner of education for the Virgin Islands, Donald Duck was Maryland’s commissioner of motor vehicles, DeCoursy Fales taught history at Emerson College, and Paula St. John Lawrence Lawler Byrne Strong Yeats Stevenson Callaghan Hunt Milne Smith Thompson Shankley Bennett Paisley O’Sullivan was named for the entire Liverpool soccer team of 1962.

Word Count

Observed by Dave Morice in the May 2011 Word Ways:

LUCK requires 7 penstrokes, BLACKJACK 21, FREEZING POINT 32, HOURS IN A DAY 24.

See Truthful Numbers.

In a Word

adj. becoming youthful

(Peculiar word!)


Jean-François Sudre had a unique thought in 1817: If people of different cultures can appreciate the same music, why not develop music itself into an international language?

The result, which he called Solresol, enlists the seven familiar notes of the solfeggio scale (do, re, mi …) as phonemes in a vocabulary of 2,600 roots. Related words share initial syllables; for example, doremi means “day,” dorefa “week,” doreso “month,” and doredo the concept of time itself. Pleasingly, opposites are indicated simply by reversing a word — fala is “good,” and lafa is “bad.”

Sudre developed this in various media: In addition to a syllable, each note was also assigned a number and a color, so that words could be expressed by knocks, blinking lights, signal flags, or bell strikes as well as music.

“Imagine for a moment a universal language, translatable to colour, melody, writing, touch, hand signals, and endless strings of numbers,” writes author Paul Collins. “Imagine now that this language was taught from birth to be second nature to every speaker, no matter what their primary language. The world would become saturated with hidden meanings. Music would be transformed, with every instrument in the orchestra engaged in simultaneous dialogue. … [T]he beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth seems to talk about ‘Wednesday’ … Needless to say, obsessive fans who already hear secret messages in music would not do their mental stability any favors by learning Solresol.”

Sudre was hailed as a genius in his lifetime, and he collected awards at world exhibitions in Paris and London, but he died before his first grammar was published. An international society promoted the language until about World War I, but in the end it lost adherents to Esperanto, which was considered easier to learn.

Torturing the Post Office

Though not having a single written word upon it, this envelope reached me from London without delay. The address reads: Miss Polly Colyer (Collier)-Fergusson (Fir-goose-sun), Ightham Mote, Ivy Hatch, Sevenoaks, Kent. Ightham Mote is indicated by a small sketch of the house itself, which is well known in the county. — Miss Colyer-Fergusson

Strand, September 1908

A correspondent, name unknown, has sent us the curiously-addressed envelope which we reproduce here. The strange words, we are informed by the Post Office authorities, represent the sounds as made by the key of the modern Morse instrument. ‘Idely iddy’ stand for ‘dots’ and ‘umpty’ for a dash. The envelope reached us as easily as if it had been addressed in the orthodox way.

Strand, January 1907

In a Word

n. a cry for help

In a Word

n. darkness

adj. wandering at night

Nothing Doing

Advance each letter in the word ABJURER 13 places through the alphabet and you get NOWHERE:

abjurer-nowhere lettershift

In a Word

n. a petty, anonymous writer

n. a minor or incompetent critic

True Enough

In Montana Salish, a Native American language of the Pacific Northwest, the word for automobile is p’ip’uyshn — literally, “it has wrinkled feet.”

The Nez Perce word for telephone, cewcew’in’es, means “a thing for whispering.”

Warm Words

The sign for brother in Taiwanese Sign Language is an extended middle finger.

In 1967 University of Chicago linguist Jim McCawley proposed that fuck, when used as an epithet, as in Fuck you, is not a verb, because it accepts none of the adjuncts of a normal sentence:

  • I said to fuck you.
  • Don’t fuck you.
  • Do fuck you.
  • Please fuck you.
  • Fuck you, won’t you?
  • Go fuck you.
  • Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
  • Fuck you and I’ll give you a dollar.

Also, Fuck you “has neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance.”

What is it, then? McCawley proposed “quasi-verb,” a new category that can be followed by a noun phrase.

The full paper is here; the journal Language credits it with being the first satirical linguistics paper.

Mind Your Betters

All persons of higher °
Are proud of a long pe°
And even the masses
Of inferior classes
Unless they are misle°.

— Cyril Bibby

Rigged Latin

When entomologist Paul Marsh was given the chance to name two wasp species in the genus Heerz, he called them Heerz tooya and Heerz lukenatcha.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature insists that “A zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectionable meaning.” But a few get through. Examples:

  • Vini vidivici (parrot)
  • Apopyllus now (spider)
  • Lalapa lusa (wasp)
  • Agra vation (beetle)
  • Phthiria relativitae (bee fly)
  • Pison eyvae (wasp)
  • Ba humbugi (snail)
  • Eubetia bigaulae (“you betcha by golly”) (moth)

Three mythicomyiid flies are named Pieza kake, Pieza pi, and Pieza deresistans.

In 1912 the Zoological Society of London criticized entomologist George Kirkaldy for giving a series of hemipterans the generic names Polychisme, Elachisme, Marichisme, Dolichisme, Florichisme, and Ochisme (“Polly kiss me,” “Ella kiss me,” “Mary kiss me,” “Dolly kiss me,” “Flora kiss me,” “Oh, kiss me!”). In the same spirit, in 2002 a hopeful Neal Evenhuis named a fossil mythicomyiid Carmenelectra shechisme. “The offer’s still good,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “I’ll be willing to meet her.”

In a Word

adj. able to tell skilled or artful lies


In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt directed the government printing office to adopt revised spellings for 300 English words. Wished would become wisht, calibre caliber, and though tho. “It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all,” he wrote. “It is merely an attempt to cast what slight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

That’s about as far as he got. The House of Representatives called on the printing office to “observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.” The New York Evening Post declared “This is 2 mutch,” and the Louisville Courier-Journal opined, “Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis. … He now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself a sort of French Academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.”

Roosevelt rescinded the order but continued to use the new spelling himself. “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten,” he told Brander Matthews. But “I am mighty glad I did the thing.”

Self Important

English is the only major language to capitalize its first-person singular pronoun.

“How monumentally imposing is that upper case ‘I’!” wrote Henry Van Dyke in 1920. “If a writer is egoistic the capitals stretch across his page like a colonnade. When he writes ‘we,’ he descends to the lower case.

“But this orthographic solipsism, mark you, is shared by Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders,–all who use the English tongue. It is therefore not to be set down to insularity, but to individualism,–a stark, ineradicable, valuable quality of these various folks whose thoughts and feelings have been nourished by the same language.”

Apple Piety

But my favourite example is a story told by the American linguist Charles Hockett, who reports that at least one Filipino father, during the American occupation of the Philippines, named his son Ababís — after the patron saint of the United States. But no such saint exists. So what happened?

Well, before the Americans arrived, the Philippines were a Spanish colony, and Spanish was widely spoken. In Spanish, the word for ‘saint’, when it occurs in a male saint’s name, is San — hence all those California place names like San Francisco, San José and San Diego. The Filipino father had noticed that American soldiers, in moments of stress, tended to call upon their saint by exclaiming San Ababís! — or something like that.

— Robert Lawrence Trask, Language: The Basics, 1999

“I once had a student named Usmail, which I at first thought was some Hispanic version of Ishmael,” writes CUNY linguist Leonard R.N. Ashley. “It transpired that he had been named for the only contact his family in a remote Puerto Rican village enjoyed with the outside world, the red-white-and-blue truck that came frequently and had painted on its side US Mail.”

“In Nyasaland, Africa, a native tribe got into the custom of taking names from a publisher’s catalogue which had fallen into their hands. Their Chieftain took for himself the name of Oxford University Press.” — Mario Pei, The Story of Language, 1966

In a Word,_Impression,_soleil_levant,_1872.jpg

adj. before dawn

“The Werewolf”,antiguo.jpg

One night an errant Werewolf fled
His wife and child and visited
A village teacher’s sepulchre
And begged him: “Conjugate me, sir!”

The village teacher then awoke
And standing on his scutcheon spoke
Thus to the beast, who made his seat
With crossed paws at the dead man’s feet:

“The Werewolf,” said that honest wight,
“The Willwolf — future, am I right?
The Wouldwolf — wolf conditional,
The Beowulf — father of them all!”

These tenses had a pleasing sound,
The Werewolf rolled his eyeballs round,
And begged him, as he’d gone so far,
Add plural to the singular.

The village teacher scratched his head;
He’d never heard of that, he said.
Though there were “wolves” in packs and swarms,
Of “were” could be no plural forms!

There werewolf rose up blind with tears
— He’s had a wife and child for years!
But being ignorant of letters
He went home thankful to his betters.

— Christian Morgenstern

In a Word

n. an inventor of words and phrases

I once had the honour of meeting a philosopher called McIndoe
Who had once had the honour of being flung out of an upstairs window.
During his flight, he said, he commenced an interesting train of speculation
On why there happened to be such a word as defenestration.

There is not, he said, a special word for being rolled down a roof into a gutter;
There is no verb to describe the action of beating a man to death with a putter;
No adjective exists to qualify a man bound to the buffer of the 12.10 to Ealing,
No abstract noun to mollify a man hung upside down by his ankles from the ceiling.

Why, then, of all the possible offences so distressing to humanitarians,
Should this one alone have caught the attention of the verbarians?
I concluded (said McIndoe) that the incidence of logodaedaly was purely adventitious.
About a thirtieth of a second later, I landed in a bush that my great-aunt brought back from Mauritius.

I am aware (he said) that defenestration is not limited to the flinging of men through the window.
On this occasion, however, it was so limited, the object defenestrated being I, the philosopher, McIndoe.

— R.P. Lister