Travel Talk

Useless phrases drawn from actual phrasebooks by Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall, from Limits of Language, 2006:

  • At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?
  • I don’t play the violin, but I love cheese.
  • I have my own syringe.
  • I had a suckling-brother, who died at the most tender age.
  • The beast had a human body, the feet of a buck, and a horn on its head.
  • Because I was out buying a pair of wooden shoes.
  • I had yams and fish for two days, and then I ate fern roots.
  • I want a specimen of your urine.
  • The corpse will be taken to Tonga.

A Chechen manual includes the phrase “Don’t shoot!”

See Enjoy Your Stay and Can You Do Without Soap?

In a Word

n. the condition of being left-handed

In a Word

adj. produced in a kitchen garden


There was a composer named Liszt,
Who from writing could never desiszt.
He made polonaises
Quite worthy of praises,
And now that he’s gone he is miszt.

There was a composer named Haydn,
The field of sonata would waydn;
He wrote the Creation,
Which made a sensation,
And this was the work which he daydn.

A modern composer named Brahms,
Caused in music the greatest of quahms.
His themes so complex
Every critic would vex,
From symphonies clear up to psahms.

An ancient musician named Gluck
The manner Italian forsuck;
He fought with Puccini,
Gave way to Rossini,
You can find all his views in his buck.

– Anonymous

Kitty Comp

I send you a small sketch, ‘A Musical Cat.’ It will be perceived that each stroke is a sign used in music, and for the benefit of the uninitiated I give this explanation: Eyes, pauses; ears and nose, accents; whiskers, crescendos; mouth, mordente, outline of head, ties; collar, staff; bells, notes; body, two phrase lines; feet, two crescendos; toes, flats and sharps; tail, two ties.

– Mr. W. Gough, in Strand, October 1906

There was a young curate of Kew
Who kept a tom cat in a pew;
He taught it to speak
Alphabetical Greek
But it never got farther than μ.

– Anonymous

In a Word

n. the art of making a difficult task appear effortless

In a Word

n. acknowledgment that one has been mistaken

In a Word

adj. rainy

v. to make wet

Abbreviated Verse

A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared that he’d tho.
Men that he saw
Dumping dirt near his store;
The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.

There is an old cook in N.Y.
Who insists you should always st.p.
Full vainly he’s tried
To eat some that was fried,
But he says he would rather ch.c.

The sermon our pastor Rt. Rev.
Began may have had a rt. clev.,
But his talk, though consistent,
Kept the end so far distant
That we left, since we felt he mt. nev.

– Anonymous

In a Word

n. the pleasure of anticipating victory or success

Numerius Negidius

Only 43 numbers have names that lack the letter N.

One of them, fittingly, is forty-three.

Equal Opportunity,_La_bocca_mi_baci%C3%B2_tutta_tremante_(Paolo_e_Francesca),_1802,.jpg

She frowned and called him Mr.
Because in sport he Kr.
And so in spite
That very night
This Mr. Kr. Sr.

– Anonymous


  • The telephone number 266-8687 spells both AMOUNTS and CONTOUR.
  • 38856 = (38 – 85) × 6
  • CARTHORSE is an anagram of ORCHESTRA.
  • The French for paper clip is trombone.
  • “The oldest books are only just out to those who have not read them.” — Samuel Butler

In a Word

n. wisdom in talk without practice

“It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.” — La Rochefoucauld

In Memoriam

But no more horrible specimen of this sort of blunder was ever committed than one which is credited to a Massachusetts paper. At the close of an extended and highly eulogistic obituary notice of a deceased lawyer, the reporter desired to say that ‘the body was taken to Hull for interment, where repose the remains of other members of the family.’ By mistake the letter e was substituted for the u in Hull, changing the sense of the sentence to such a degree that no extra copies of that issue of the paper were ordered by the family of the dead lawyer.

– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

In a Word

v. to put off until the day after tomorrow



  • Tarzan’s yell is an aural palindrome.
  • CONTAMINATED is an anagram of NO ADMITTANCE.
  • The Swiss Family Robinson have no surname (“Robinson” refers to Robinson Crusoe).
  • x2 – 2999x + 2248541 produces 80 primes from x = 1460 to 1539.
  • “A great fortune is a great slavery.” — Seneca

In a Word

n. the shock felt on first plunging into cold water

Looking Out

Write out the numbers ONE through NINE and alphabetize them.

ONE appears in the center.

Do the same for ONE through NINETEEN and ONE through NINETY-NINE.

In each case, ONE remains in the center.

(Discovered by Edward Wolpow.)

In a Word

n. one who observes Lent

“The Declaration of Independence in American”

When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellowbellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more.

– H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 1921

See All Clouds, No Thunder.


  • Richard Gere’s middle name is Tiffany.
  • Where does the hinterland begin?
  • WORLD CUP TEAM is an anagram of TALCUM POWDER.
  • log 237.5812087593 = 2.375812087593
  • “Why is it that something can be transparent green but not transparent white?” — Wittgenstein

In a Word

n. a flourish after a signature

The Parrot of Atures

In exploring the upper Orinoco around 1800, Alexander von Humboldt learned of a tribe, the Atures, that had recently died out there. Their language had died with them, but Humboldt was still able to hear it spoken: “At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation, that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.’”

From a 19th-century poem:

Where are now the youths who bred him
To pronounce their mother tongue?
Where the gentle maids who fed him
And who built his nest when young?

Humboldt managed to record phonetically 40 words spoken by the parrot, and in 1997 artist Rachel Berwick painstakingly taught two Amazon parrots to speak them. Can a language be said to survive if no one knows its meaning?