Diner Lingo

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  • “Adam and Eve on a raft and wreck ’em”: two scrambled eggs on toast
  • “Burn one, take it through the garden, and pin a rose on it”: hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion
  • “Burn the British and draw one in the dark”: English muffin, toasted, with black coffee
  • “Adam’s ale, hold the hail”: water, no ice
  • “Give it shoes”: an order to go
  • “Honeymoon salad”: “lettuce alone”
  • “Life preservers”: doughnuts
  • “Noah’s boy on bread”: ham sandwich
  • “Put out the lights and cry”: liver and onions
  • “Zeppelins in a fog”: sausages and mashed potatoes

In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “The common faults of American language are an ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.”

World View

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.”

Beneath the Surface

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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.

In a Word

febrifacient
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.”

Language Arts

“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

In a Word

juise
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.