In a Word

n. darkness

adj. wandering at night

Nothing Doing

Advance each letter in the word ABJURER 13 places through the alphabet and you get NOWHERE:

abjurer-nowhere lettershift

In a Word

n. a petty, anonymous writer

n. a minor or incompetent critic

True Enough

In Montana Salish, a Native American language of the Pacific Northwest, the word for automobile is p’ip’uyshn — literally, “it has wrinkled feet.”

The Nez Perce word for telephone, cewcew’in’es, means “a thing for whispering.”

Warm Words

The sign for brother in Taiwanese Sign Language is an extended middle finger.

In 1967 University of Chicago linguist Jim McCawley proposed that fuck, when used as an epithet, as in Fuck you, is not a verb, because it accepts none of the adjuncts of a normal sentence:

  • I said to fuck you.
  • Don’t fuck you.
  • Do fuck you.
  • Please fuck you.
  • Fuck you, won’t you?
  • Go fuck you.
  • Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
  • Fuck you and I’ll give you a dollar.

Also, Fuck you “has neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance.”

What is it, then? McCawley proposed “quasi-verb,” a new category that can be followed by a noun phrase.

The full paper is here; the journal Language credits it with being the first satirical linguistics paper.

Mind Your Betters

All persons of higher °
Are proud of a long pe°
And even the masses
Of inferior classes
Unless they are misle°.

— Cyril Bibby

Rigged Latin

When entomologist Paul Marsh was given the chance to name two wasp species in the genus Heerz, he called them Heerz tooya and Heerz lukenatcha.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature insists that “A zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectionable meaning.” But a few get through. Examples:

  • Vini vidivici (parrot)
  • Apopyllus now (spider)
  • Lalapa lusa (wasp)
  • Agra vation (beetle)
  • Phthiria relativitae (bee fly)
  • Pison eyvae (wasp)
  • Ba humbugi (snail)
  • Eubetia bigaulae (“you betcha by golly”) (moth)

Three mythicomyiid flies are named Pieza kake, Pieza pi, and Pieza deresistans.

In 1912 the Zoological Society of London criticized entomologist George Kirkaldy for giving a series of hemipterans the generic names Polychisme, Elachisme, Marichisme, Dolichisme, Florichisme, and Ochisme (“Polly kiss me,” “Ella kiss me,” “Mary kiss me,” “Dolly kiss me,” “Flora kiss me,” “Oh, kiss me!”). In the same spirit, in 2002 a hopeful Neal Evenhuis named a fossil mythicomyiid Carmenelectra shechisme. “The offer’s still good,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “I’ll be willing to meet her.”

In a Word

adj. able to tell skilled or artful lies


In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt directed the government printing office to adopt revised spellings for 300 English words. Wished would become wisht, calibre caliber, and though tho. “It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all,” he wrote. “It is merely an attempt to cast what slight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

That’s about as far as he got. The House of Representatives called on the printing office to “observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.” The New York Evening Post declared “This is 2 mutch,” and the Louisville Courier-Journal opined, “Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis. … He now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself a sort of French Academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.”

Roosevelt rescinded the order but continued to use the new spelling himself. “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten,” he told Brander Matthews. But “I am mighty glad I did the thing.”

Self Important

English is the only major language to capitalize its first-person singular pronoun.

“How monumentally imposing is that upper case ‘I’!” wrote Henry Van Dyke in 1920. “If a writer is egoistic the capitals stretch across his page like a colonnade. When he writes ‘we,’ he descends to the lower case.

“But this orthographic solipsism, mark you, is shared by Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders,–all who use the English tongue. It is therefore not to be set down to insularity, but to individualism,–a stark, ineradicable, valuable quality of these various folks whose thoughts and feelings have been nourished by the same language.”

Apple Piety

But my favourite example is a story told by the American linguist Charles Hockett, who reports that at least one Filipino father, during the American occupation of the Philippines, named his son Ababís — after the patron saint of the United States. But no such saint exists. So what happened?

Well, before the Americans arrived, the Philippines were a Spanish colony, and Spanish was widely spoken. In Spanish, the word for ‘saint’, when it occurs in a male saint’s name, is San — hence all those California place names like San Francisco, San José and San Diego. The Filipino father had noticed that American soldiers, in moments of stress, tended to call upon their saint by exclaiming San Ababís! — or something like that.

— Robert Lawrence Trask, Language: The Basics, 1999

“I once had a student named Usmail, which I at first thought was some Hispanic version of Ishmael,” writes CUNY linguist Leonard R.N. Ashley. “It transpired that he had been named for the only contact his family in a remote Puerto Rican village enjoyed with the outside world, the red-white-and-blue truck that came frequently and had painted on its side US Mail.”

“In Nyasaland, Africa, a native tribe got into the custom of taking names from a publisher’s catalogue which had fallen into their hands. Their Chieftain took for himself the name of Oxford University Press.” — Mario Pei, The Story of Language, 1966

In a Word,_Impression,_soleil_levant,_1872.jpg

adj. before dawn

“The Werewolf”,antiguo.jpg

One night an errant Werewolf fled
His wife and child and visited
A village teacher’s sepulchre
And begged him: “Conjugate me, sir!”

The village teacher then awoke
And standing on his scutcheon spoke
Thus to the beast, who made his seat
With crossed paws at the dead man’s feet:

“The Werewolf,” said that honest wight,
“The Willwolf — future, am I right?
The Wouldwolf — wolf conditional,
The Beowulf — father of them all!”

These tenses had a pleasing sound,
The Werewolf rolled his eyeballs round,
And begged him, as he’d gone so far,
Add plural to the singular.

The village teacher scratched his head;
He’d never heard of that, he said.
Though there were “wolves” in packs and swarms,
Of “were” could be no plural forms!

There werewolf rose up blind with tears
— He’s had a wife and child for years!
But being ignorant of letters
He went home thankful to his betters.

— Christian Morgenstern

In a Word

n. an inventor of words and phrases

I once had the honour of meeting a philosopher called McIndoe
Who had once had the honour of being flung out of an upstairs window.
During his flight, he said, he commenced an interesting train of speculation
On why there happened to be such a word as defenestration.

There is not, he said, a special word for being rolled down a roof into a gutter;
There is no verb to describe the action of beating a man to death with a putter;
No adjective exists to qualify a man bound to the buffer of the 12.10 to Ealing,
No abstract noun to mollify a man hung upside down by his ankles from the ceiling.

Why, then, of all the possible offences so distressing to humanitarians,
Should this one alone have caught the attention of the verbarians?
I concluded (said McIndoe) that the incidence of logodaedaly was purely adventitious.
About a thirtieth of a second later, I landed in a bush that my great-aunt brought back from Mauritius.

I am aware (he said) that defenestration is not limited to the flinging of men through the window.
On this occasion, however, it was so limited, the object defenestrated being I, the philosopher, McIndoe.

— R.P. Lister

American Notes

It must be confessed at the outset that Oshkosh is not a beautiful word. Its pronunciation is suggestive of a man struggling with a mouthful of hot mush, and to the irreverent it is a perfect rhyme to ‘gosh.’ But, on the other hand, the word has its advantages. It is an ideal word for advertising purposes. Once heard the word cannot be forgotten. Furthermore, to say that one comes from Oshkosh is in itself a mark of distinction. To be sure, few persons do come from Oshkosh. They are afraid of being made fun of, but when they do wander from the Oshkosh fireside, they attract as much attention as the pachyderm contingent of a circus parade. In a drawing-room the citizen from Oshkosh is the cynosure of all eyes, and he need fear but three rivals–the man from Kalamazoo, the man from Kokomo, and the man from Keokuk.

— Rochester Post Express, March 26, 1911

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