Futility Closet book ad


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?

Altered States

There’s a girl out in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
To meet whom I never would wich.
She’d gobble ice cream
Till with colic she’d scream,
Then order another big dich.

A handsome young gent down in Fla.
Collapsed in a hospital ca.
A young nurse from Me.
Sought to banish his pe.
And shot him. Now what could be ha.?

There was a young lady from Del.
Who was most undoubtedly wel.
That to dress for a masque
Wasn’t much of a tasque,
But she cried, “What the heck will my fel.?”

There are plenty of people in Md.
Who think that their state is a fd.
It seems odd to find
That they don’t really mind
That Wis., not Md., is Dd.

See This Sceptred Isle.

Poetry Piecemeal

Lexicographer Wilfred Funk declared these the 10 most beautiful words in English:

  • chimes
  • dawn
  • golden
  • hush
  • lullaby
  • luminous
  • melody
  • mist
  • murmuring
  • tranquil

Playwright Edward Sheldon declared these the ugliest:

  • funeral parlor
  • galluses
  • housewife
  • intelligentsia

Charles V said, “We should speak Spanish with the gods, Italian with our lover, French with our friend, German with soldiers, English with geese, Hungarian with horses, and Bohemian with the devil.”

See Euphony.

In a Word

n. the act of tasting before another

On June 21, 1931, a brace of partridges was ordered from a poulterer at Aldershot, Hampshire, for delivery to the nearby bungalow of Lt. Hubert Chevis. A cook stored them in an open meat safe outside the building, then roasted them and served them to Chevis and his wife.

Chevis took one mouthful and said, “It tastes horrible!” His wife touched it with her tongue and pronounced it “fusty.” Both were taken ill within minutes, and Chevis died of strychnine poisoning early the following morning.

On the day of Chevis’ funeral, and before any story had appeared in the press, his father received a telegram that read “HOORAY. HOORAY. HOORAY.” The form had been signed with the name Hartigan and the address of a Dublin hotel, but no one by that name was found there.

When the Daily Sketch published a photograph of this telegram on Aug. 1, the editor received a postcard:

Dear Sir,
Why do you publish the picture of the Hooray telegram.

And Chevis’ father received a further postcard on Aug. 4:

It is a mystery they will never solve. Hooray.

He was right. Someone had found an opportunity to poison the birds between their arrival in a locked van and their being served, but Chevis had no known enemies and no one recognized the name Hartigan. The case has never been solved.


  • As Britain prepared for World War I, officers were required to have their swords sharpened.
  • Wordsworth’s “The Rainbow” has an average word length of 3.08 letters.
  • sin 10° × sin 50° × sin 70° = 1/8
  • “I have always thought that every woman should marry, and no man.” — Benjamin Disraeli

Terms Past

Disused words from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language:

  • figure-flinger: a pretender to astrology and prediction
  • pissburnt: stained with urine
  • blinkard: one that has bad eyes
  • centuriator: a name given to historians, who distinguish times by centuries
  • longimanous: long-handed; having long hands
  • candlewaster: that which consumes candles; a spendthrift
  • carecrazed: broken with care and solicitude
  • overyeared: too old
  • scarefire: a fright by fire; a fire breaking out so as to raise terror
  • traveltainted: harrassed; fatigued with travel
  • vowfellow: one bound by the same vow

“Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition,” he had written in the preface. “[But] when we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years.”

In a Word

n. emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language

“Truly Eerie Wordplay”

In the November 2010 Word Ways, Mike Keith notes a striking coincidence:

Bible’s Machine and Welding
6499 Blue Springs Pkwy
Mosheim, TN 37818

That’s the address of a machine shop in eastern Tennessee, presumably owned by a family named Bible. Enter the zip code in a calculator and turn it upside down.

In a Word

n. the act of stretching oneself

Fooled Again

Court transcript quoted by Rodney Jones in Disorderly Conduct: Verbatim Excerpts From Actual Cases, 1987:

The Court: I got the Quadrophenia, but then he said somebody played in it, and I didn’t get that.

Prosecutor: The Who.

The Court: The what?

Witness: Musicians.

Prosecutor: The Who.

Witness: The Who.

The Court: Who?

Witness: The Who. That’s the name of the band.

The Court: So that’s the name of the group, the Who?

Witness: Yes, the Who.

The Court: Not the What? The Who?

Witness: No, the Who.

The Court: You got it, everybody? The Quadrophenia is a movie with the Who.

Witness: Punk rockers.

The Court: All right.


  • ALONE and UPRAISE can be beheaded twice and retain their essential meanings.
  • Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was named Evelyn.
  • 1033 = 81 + 80 + 83 + 83
  • Can a shadow rotate?
  • “Genius is nothing but a greater aptitude for patience.” — Benjamin Franklin

Found Out


In spite of twenty-five years in Southern California, [Aldous Huxley] remains an English gentleman. The scientist’s habit of examining everything from every side and of turning everything upside down and inside out is also characteristic of Aldous. I remember him leafing through a copy of Transition, reading a poem in it, looking again at the title of the magazine, reflecting for a moment, then saying, ‘Backwards it spells NO IT ISN(T) ART.’

– Igor Stravinsky, Dialogues, 1982

In a Word



n. a tightrope walker


  • SWEET-TOOTHED has three consecutive pairs of letters. SUBBOOKKEEPER has four.
  • Will you answer this question negatively?
  • 4624 = 44 + 46 + 42 + 44
  • The telephone number 278-7433 spells both ASTRIDE and CRUSHED.
  • “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” — Emerson

In a Word

v. to make sad

n. anything that drives away pain

n. absence of sorrow


  • EVIAN, SEIKO, and STROH’S are all English words spelled backward.
  • Can “I apologize” be false?
  • 165033 = 163 + 503 + 333
  • Little Wymondley, in Hertfordshire, is bigger than Great Wymondley.
  • “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” — Satchel Paige



RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON and WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON are the only U.S. presidents whose names contain the letters C-R-I-M-I-N-A-L.

In a Word

n. a superficial philosopher

Rubbing Shoulders

Every number greater than 8 has at least two letters in common with each of its neighbors.

In a Word


n. fishing

n. a treatise on fish or the art of fishing

News of Note

Two very old stories are worth repeating for their peculiar excellence. A Scotch newspaper, reporting the danger that an express-train had run in consequence of a cow going upon the line, said, ‘As the safest way, the engineer put on full steam, dashed up against the cow, and literally cut her into calves.’ In the earlier half of this century a London paper announced that Sir Robert Peel and a party of fiends were shooting peasants in Ireland.

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


  • The smallest number name that’s typed with eight fingers is ONE SEPTILLION ONE THOUSAND.
  • Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus are all towns in Indiana.
  • 2427 = 21 + 42 + 23 + 74
  • SAN DIEGO is an anagram of DIAGNOSE.
  • “It is not customary to love what one has.” — Anatole France

Down for the Count

If A = 1, B = 2, etc., then:

  • ONE FOUR SIX = 146

Discovered by Edward Wolpow and Dmitri Borgmann. See Truthful Numbers.

Village Poetry

On Aug. 21, 1974, the London Times announced the reassignment of a Church of England cleric:

Diocese of Salisbury. The Rev J.E.B. Cattell, Vicar of Piddletrenthide with Alton Pancras and Plush, to be priest-in-charge of Buckhorn Weston and Kington Magna.

This drew a flood of responses. Excerpts:

Is there really a parish of Piddletrenthide with Lanton Pancras and Plush? If so, I will have to retire there; it certainly is an improvement on ‘Maidstone.’

It’s in West Dorset and is as delightful as its name implies. We also have Toller Pocorum, Sydling St Nicholas, Whitchurch Canonicorum, and Ryme Intrinseca, to name but four others.

For sheer pleasure to the ear the redeployment of ecclesiastical strength in Yorkshire which appeared in your columns some 14 years ago remains supreme: ‘the Rev G.D. Beaglehole, Vicar of Kexby with Wilberfoss to be Vicar of Bossall with Buttercrambe.’

In 1960 you also announced: ‘The Rev G. Christie, Rector of Roos with Tunstall-in-Holderness, Vicar of Garton with Grimston and Hilston and Rural Dean of South Holderness to be Vicar of Pocklington with Yapham-cum-Meltonby and Owsthorpe with Kilnwick Percy, and Millington with Great Givendale, and Rural Dean of Pocklington.’

We in Hampshire can surely beat them all with our three hearty Wallops — Over, Middle and Nether.

One signpost in Shropshire reads simply: Homer 1, Wigwig 2. How’s that for brevity and wit?

May I on behalf of Scotland offer a brief contribution to this correspondence and draw attention to the tiny but ancient fishing village on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, which proudly bears the name ‘Society’?

The first place listed in Part Two of the 1961 Census Index of Place Names aptly describes the efforts of your readers in this silly correspondence: Labour-in-Vain.

A final letter read, “Sir, as a foreigner, may I say how enjoyable has been your correspondence on this subject, for in my country we do not have such quaint place-names.” It was signed “K.J. Wyatt, Turramurra, Kur-ring-gai, New South Wales.”