In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucas_Cranach_d.%C3%84._-_Alter_Mann_und_junge_Dirnen.jpg

meretriculate
v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute

BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.

The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828

Lettershifts

ETCH-PENS lettershift

When the letters in ETCH are advanced uniformly through the alphabet, they produce PENS. Likewise FUSION produces LAYOUT, INKIER produces PURPLY, SLEEP produces BUNNY, and HOTEL produces OVALS. The same technique produces the phrases SAD BEING EMPTY and MY DREAM MAN:

SAD-BEING-EMPTY lettershift

MY-DREAM-MAN lettershift

This must mean something.

The Hidden Psalm

The final movement on John Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme is a “musical narration” of a devotional poem that Coltrane included in the album’s liner notes — he put the handwritten poem on a music stand and “played” it as if it were music.

“Coltrane’s hushed delivery sounds deliberately speechlike,” write Ashley Kahn in his 2003 history of the album. “He hangs on to the ends of phrases, repeats them as if for emphasis. He is in fact ‘reading’ through his horn.”

The hidden psalm was marked by New York musicians for decades before Rutgers University musicologist Lewis Porter presented a formal analysis to the American Musicological Society in 1980. “You will find that he plays right to the final ‘Amen’ and then finishes,” he writes in his 1997 biography of the saxophonist. “There are no extra notes up to that point. You will have to make a few adjustments in the poem, however: Near the beginning where it reads, ‘Help us resolve our fears and weaknesses,’ he skips the next line, goes on to ‘In you all things are possible,’ then plays ‘Thank you God’ … towards the end he leaves out ‘I have seen God.'”

“I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it,” Coltrane had said. “I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”

(Thanks, Jeff.)

Ersatz English

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.

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_J_Lew_Signature.svg

chirography
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.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_Lew_new_money_signature.png

Snowball Numbers

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:

snowball numbers 1

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:

snowball numbers 2

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:

snowball numbers 3

“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.)

In a Word

sesquialteral
adj. half again as large

improcerous
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.

In a Word

advolution
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.)

English by Degrees

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.)