Language

Side Matters

When pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I, he commissioned a “concerto for the left hand” from Maurice Ravel.

When his friend Dick Mohr had a cerebral episode in the early 1960s that impaired the use of his left hand, William Zinsser remembered Ravel and composed a “fantasia for the left hand” that Smolens could type as a recovery exercise:

crazed zebras craved egress
at a garage
scared bats vacated

watered carafe
begat a gaffe
at a cafe

a wet sweater starts a stagger
devastates a swagger

vexed rex
deferred sex
rested testes

ragtag beggars
degraded a revered settee
a reader dazed a referee

drab cad dabbed at a cravat
bad dad
treed a deaf cat

a fezzed Arab
razzed a verger
at Qatar

retarded gaffer basted a stag
braggart ate a garbage bag

crass bastard
cadged faxes
at a data base

saber castrated
sex exerted Exeter cadets
sad tads

saxes reverberate
cabbages vegetate
taxes wax

aged drag star
segregated a sextet

exaggerated breeze
ravaged trees
wafted bees
afar

“Dick Mohr never fully recovered,” Zinsser wrote in his 2012 book The Writer Who Stayed. “But my verses helped to keep us connected and amused a little longer.”

In a Word

noctuary
n. an account of what happens during a particular night

Far From Home

Two or three of them got round me and begged me for the twentieth time to tell them the name of my country. Then, as they could not pronounce it satisfactorily, they insisted that I was deceiving them, and that it was a name of my own invention. One funny old man, who bore a ludicrous resemblance to a friend of mine at home, was almost indignant. ‘Ung-lung!’ said he, ‘who ever heard of such a name? — ang-lang — anger-lang — that can’t be the name of your country; you are playing with us.’ Then he tried to give a convincing illustration. ‘My country is Wanumbai — anybody can say Wanumbai. I’m an ‘orang-Wanumbai; but, N-glung! who ever heard of such a name? Do tell us the real name of your country, and then when you are gone we shall know how to talk about you.’

— Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Aru Islands,” The Malay Archipelago, 1869

Roots

In the old times these isles lay there as they do now, with the wild sea round them. The men who had their homes there knew naught of the rest of the world and none knew of them. The storms of years beat on the high white cliffs, and the wild beasts had their lairs in the woods, and the birds built in trees or reeds with no one to fright them. A large part of the land was in woods and swamps. There were no roads, no streets, not a bridge or a house to be seen. The homes of these wild tribes were mere huts with roofs of straw. They hid them in thick woods, and made a ditch round them and a low wall of mud or the trunks of trees. They ate the flesh of their flocks for food, for they did not know how to raise corn or wheat. They knew how to weave the reeds that grew in their swamps, and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and a rude sort of ware out of the clay of the earth. From their rush work they made boats, and put the skins of beasts on them to make them tight and strong. They had swords made from tin and a red ore. But these swords were of a queer shape and so soft that they could be bent with a hard blow.

— Helen W. Pierson, History of England in Words of One Syllable, 1884

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Equestrienne_(L%27Amazone)_-_%C3%89douard_Manet.jpg

equitation
n. the art of horseback riding

abequitate
v. to ride away

The Nyctograph

Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.

So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:

carroll nyctograph alphabet

“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”

“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”

In a Word

fleer
v. to smile contemptuously

maledicent
adj. given to evil-speaking; slanderous

malison
n. a curse

Words and Numbers

If the English names of the natural numbers are spelled out consecutively, what letter occurs most frequently? In 1981 Frank Rubin showed that I never overtakes E in this race. When we reach NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, the letter E has appeared 3,130 times, while I has appeared only 1,310. After NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, each of the names ONE through NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE has appeared 1,000 times to the left of the word THOUSAND and 999 times to the right, so at the ONE MILLION mark I has appeared 2,620,000 times and E 6,260,000.

When we reach ONE BILLION, I has had a bit of a boost by appearing 1,998,000,000 times in the word MILLION, but it’s not enough: At this point E has appeared 9,390,000,000 times and I only 5,928,000,000.

The gap is never closed. It narrows if an -illion word has two or more Is and no Es, but if E also appears (SEXTILLION, SEPTILLION) then it widens. I makes its closest approach at ONE SEXTILLION, when we’ve racked up 2.0159 × 1022 Is and 2.191 × 1022 Es.

In fact, the only letters that ever surpass E, anywhere in the sequence, are O at the end of TWO and T before THREE is spelled out.

(“Colloquy,” Word Ways, November 1981)

Purple Mountains

Excerpts from an Independence Day oration by Nashville attorney Edwin H. Tenney to the Young Men’s Association of Great Bend, Tenn., July 4, 1858:

  • “Venerable, my Fellow Citizens, on the brilliant calendar of American Independence, is the day we celebrate. Venerable as the revolving epoch in our anniversaries of freedom is this avalanche of time. Venerable as the abacus on the citadel of greatness, thou well-spring of hope. Homestead of Liberty, we venerate thy habitation. Monument of immortality, we adorate thy worth.”
  • “To those veterans eulogy is preposterous and monuments unavailing, but a heart soaking with gratitude is never bleak nor serene. Cold calumny may chill it and life’s icicles freeze it, but when thawed by recollections blood leaps through its veins. Could we learn from immortality their fame or presage their memory, the priceless league — the serried rank — the siren yell — the solemn march — the cracking bone — the flying flesh — the clinic pang — the grilling wail — the quenchless sigh and the clattering footsteps of that army welding sympathy to ages and liberty to life, will float like the dying groans of Calvary down the rapids of mortality, and whistling salvation along the whirlpool of nations, they will enter like their fathers a sea of bliss.”
  • “Such a theme needs no epitasis. It needs no amphitheatre with its Ignatius irritating the lions to accelerate his glory. It needs not the inflexibility of a Laurentius — or the suavity of a Pionius for its apodosis.”
  • “Some of our ladies find this romance ‘mid flounces and ostentation — ‘mid luxury and expense — ‘mid smatterers of French peppered with Latin; of Latin salted with Greek; or of Greek hashed with German. To petrify their brains with problems or dishes would be blowing up the ramparts of beauty and fortune; pillaging the flower pots of geranium magnificence, and insulting the bounties of a benevolent God.”
  • “Would you remove these Senacheribs from Amaranthus — then become Malanchthons in reforms not Catalines of your country. Better banish — like Lycurgus — politician and poet rather than not tear from our wheels this drag-chain of Romance which is the pabulum of fancy and nursery of woe.”

“What does he mean by ‘blowing up the ramparts of beauty?'” wondered the Daily Alta California afterward. “The obscurity can’t be in the writer, and must therefore lie in our own ignorance. Still we ask — what are the ramparts of beauty?”

In a Word

nefandous
adj. not to be spoken of, unmentionable

tacenda
n. things to be passed over in silence