In 2005, Chinese novelist Hu Wenliang offered 140,000 yuan ($16,900 U.S.) to the reader who could decipher his novel «?», which consists entirely of punctuation marks:
Hu claimed that the symbols represent a touching love story that took him a year to write, but he told the Beijing Daily Messenger that none of the 20 interpretations that readers had so far offered had satisfied him.
“I have my own answer, which is around 100 Chinese characters,” he said. “The interpretation should cover the description of characters and the plot of the story. I will reward someone who can guess 80 percent the hidden story correct.”
That was in July 2005. If anyone has offered a successful solution, I haven’t been able to discover it.
- WEALTH is an anagram of THE LAW.
- U.S. Navy submarines observe an 18-hour day.
- Joaquín Rodrigo wrote his compositions in Braille.
- 45632 = –45 + 63×2
- “Thy modesty’s a candle to thy merit.” — Henry Fielding
adj. “left-handed on both sides”; clumsy
“Jabberwocky” works wonderfully in German — writer Thomas Chatterton offered this translation to Macmillan’s Magazine in 1872:
Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.
»Bewahre doch vor Jammerwoch!
Die Zähne knirschen, Krallen kratzen!
Bewahr’ vor Jubjub-Vogel, vor
Er griff sein vorpals Schwertchen zu,
Er suchte lang das manchsam’ Ding;
Dann, stehend unten Tumtum Baum,
Als stand er tief in Andacht auf,
Des Jammerwochen’s Augen-feuer
Durch tulgen Wald mit wiffek kam
Ein burbelnd Ungeheuer!
Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück,
Da blieb es todt! Er, Kopf in Hand,
Geläumfig zog zurück.
»Und schlugst Du ja den Jammerwoch?
Umarme mich, mien Böhm’sches Kind!
O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!«
Er chortelt froh-gesinnt.
Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.
In The Philosopher’s Alice, Peter Heath calls this “easily the best” of the poem’s many translations. “In no other language is elaboration of structure so readily compatible with entire absence of meaning.”
n. a word having more than one meaning
In 1000 Most Obscure Words, lexicographer Norman Schur notes that the Oxford English Dictionary gives three strikingly different definitions for rosmarine:
Similarly, merkin manages to mean both “an artificial covering of hair for the female pubic region” and “a mop to clean cannon.” Kudos.
In 1973, textile merchant Marcus Shloimovitz sued the Oxford Dictionary for defining Jew in part as “a grasping or extortionate money-lender or usurer.” “The Jewish race includes sages, scholars, judges, scientists and people from the arts and stage,” he argued. “They have done great service for their countries. They are not cheats or unscrupulous usurers.” He lost because he failed to show that the definition had caused him personal suffering.
In 1951 James Thurber’s friend Mitchell challenged him to think of an English word that contains the four consecutive letters SGRA. Lying in bed that night, Thurber came up with these:
kissgranny. A man who seeks the company of older women, especially older women with money; a designing fellow, a fortune hunter.
blessgravy. A minister or cleric; the head of a family; one who says grace.
hossgrace. Innate or native dignity, similar to that of the thoroughbred hoss.
bussgranite. Literally, a stonekisser; a man who persists in trying to win the favor or attention of cold, indifferent, or capricious women.
tossgravel. A male human being who tosses gravel, usually at night, at the window of a female human being’s bedroom, usually that of a young virgin; hence, a lover, a male sweetheart, and an eloper.
Unfortunately, none of these is in the dictionary. What word was Mitchell thinking of?
Apt names of medical specialists, collected by the MEDLIB-L discussion list in 1998:
Cardiologists: Dr. Valentine, Dr. Hart, Dr. Safety R. First
Chiropractors: Dr. Popwell, Dr. Wack, Dr. Bonebrake, Dr. Bender
Dentists, endodontists and orthodontists: Dr. Pullen, Dr. Fillmore, Dr. Hurt, Dr. Yankum, Dr. Les Plack, Dr. Toothman, Dr. Borer, Dr. Pullman, Dr. Filler, Dr. Harm, Dr. Hurter, Dr. Toothaker
Dermatologists: Dr. Rash, Dr. Pitts, Dr. Skinner, Dr. Whitehead
Family practice, internists: Dr. Kwak, Dr. Blood, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Patient, Dr. Payne, Dr. Slaughter, Dr. A. Sickman, Dr. Deadman, Dr. Will Griever
Hand surgeons: Dr. Palmer, Dr. Nalebuff, Dr. Watchmaker
Medical librarian: Rita Book
Neurologists: Dr. Johnathan Treat Paine, Dr. Brain, Dr. Head
Pediatricians: Dr. Donald Duckles, Dr. Small, Dr. Bunny, Dr. Tickles
Psychiatrists/psychologists/mental health: Dr. Brain, Dr. Strange, Dr. Dippy, Dr. Moodie, Dr. Nutter, Dr. Looney
Surgeons: Dr. Hackman, Dr. Blades, Dr. Klutts, Dr. Graves, Dr. Cutts, Dr. Slaughter, Dr. Kutteroff, Dr. Doctor, Dr. Butcher, Dr. Hurt
Wordplay maven Dave Morice discovered something strange in 1992: Write out the three-letter word ONE, and beneath it write out the next odd number whose name is spelled with four letters, then the next spelled with five letters, and so on up to TWENTY-ONE, which has nine letters. Then, in a separate column, do the same with even numbers, from the three-letter TWO to the nine-letter TWENTY-TWO — but list these in reverse order:
Now each line contains 12 letters — and in each instance the numbers named total 23! What does this mean?
When the Rose & Crown signboard blew down
George the landlord remarked with a frown,
“On the one to replace it
We’ll have much more space be-
Tween Rose and & and & and Crown.”
– Leigh Mercer
David Garrick revolutionized the 18th-century stage with a naturalistic style of acting that replaced the self-conscious theatricality of the earlier tradition. Audiences flocked to see his productions, forsaking earlier favorites such as James Quin, who admitted, “If this young fellow be right, then we have been all wrong.”
Garrick died in 1779, so we have no recordings of his performances. But we do have this:
That’s Garrick’s line reading preserved in the “prosodia rationalis,” a system for recording linguistic prosody using a music-like notation. Its creator, Joshua Steele, had attended a Garrick performance in order to compare his own rendering of Hamlet with that of the acclaimed actor. He found that “that speech, or soliloque, which I (for want of better judgement) have noted in the stile of a ranting actor, swelled with forte and softened with piano, he delivered with little or no distinction of piano and forte, but nearly uniform; something below the ordinary force, or, as a musician would say, sotto voce, or sempre poco piano.”
Steele gives a few other fragments of Garrick’s performance, but “I shall forbear to give any more specimens of that great actor’s elocution, from the memory of once hearing, lest I should do him injustice, as my intention here is not to play the critic; but merely to shew, that by means of these characters, all the varieties of enunciation may be committed to paper, and read off as easily as the air of a song tune.”
Related (sort of): The Parrot of Atures.
I think this first appeared in the puzzle newsletter The Ag Mine — 12 chemical elements can be spelled using element symbols:
n. a place where four roads meet
Traveling between country towns, you arrive at a lonely crossroads where some mischief-maker has uprooted the signpost and left it lying by the side of the road.
Without help, how can you choose the right road and continue your journey?
n. a two-year-old canary
The Indonesian word for water is air.
adj. carrying a whip
adj. fond of flogging
Pedro Carolino thought he was doing the world a favor in 1883 when he published English As She Is Spoke, ostensibly a Portuguese-English phrasebook. The trouble is that Carolino didn’t speak English — apparently he had taken an existing Portuguese-French phrasebook and mechanically translated the French to English using a dictionary, assuming that this would produce proper English. It didn’t:
It must to get in the corn.
He burns one’s self the brains.
He not tooks so near.
He make to weep the room.
I should eat a piece of some thing.
I took off him of perplexity.
I dead myself in envy to see her.
The sun glisten?
The thunderbolt is falling down.
Whole to agree one’s perfectly.
Yours parents does exist yet?
A dialogue with a bookseller:
What is there in new’s litterature?
Little or almost nothing, it not appears any thing of note.
And yet one imprint many deal.
That is true; but what it is imprinted. Some news papers, pamphlets, and others ephemiral pieces: here is.
But why, you and another book seller, you does not to imprint some good works?
There is a reason for that, it is that you canot to sell its. The actual-liking of the public is depraved they does not read who for to amuse one’s self ant but to instruct one’s.
But the letter’s men who cultivate the arts and the sciences they can’t to pass without the books.
A little learneds are happies enough for to may to satisfy their fancies on the literature.
One eyed was laied against a man which had good eyes that he saw better than him. The party was accepted. “I had gain, over said the one eyed; why I see you two eyes, and you not look me who one.”
The walls have hearsay.
Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss.
He has a good beak.
The dress don’t make the monk.
They shurt him the doar in the face.
Every where the stones are hards. [true enough]
Burn the politeness.
To live in a small cleanness point.
To craunch the marmoset.
Mark Twain wrote, “In this world of uncertainties, there is, at any rate, one thing which may be pretty confidently set down as a certainty: and that is, that this celebrated little phrase-book will never die while the English language lasts. … Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.”
Johann David Steingruber fulfilled his literary ambitions on a drafting table — his Architectural Alphabet (1773) renders each letter of the alphabet as the floor plan of a palace.
Antonio Basoli’s Alfabeto Pittorico (1839) presents the letters as architectural drawings:
Perhaps next we can actually build them.
adj. incapable of being fully investigated
- Alexander Pope was 4 foot 6.
- SOCIAL INEPTITUDE is an anagram of POTENTIAL SUICIDE.
- 6! × 7! = 10!
- Is the correct answer to this question no?
- “Do something well, and that is quickly enough.” — Baltasar Gracián
v. to harass or chase in a manner reminiscent of Achilles
Brad Pitt, who played Achilles in the 2004 film Troy, tore his Achilles tendon during production.
It was British wordplay expert Leigh Mercer who coined the classic palindrome “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama” in Note & Queries on Nov. 13, 1948. He later said that he’d had the middle portion, PLAN A CANAL P, for a year before he saw that PANAMA fit.
Mercer published 100 palindromes in N&Q between 1946 and 1953 — a selection:
See, slave, I demonstrate yet arts no medieval sees
Now Ned I am a maiden won
Here so long? No loser, eh?
Trade ye no mere moneyed art
Ban campus motto, “Bottoms up, MacNab”
No dot nor Ottawa “legal age” law at Toronto, Don
Now ere we nine were held idle here, we nine were won
Egad, a base life defiles a bad age
“Reviled did I live,” said I, “as evil I did deliver”
I saw desserts, I’d no lemons, alas, no melon, distressed was I
Sue, dice, do, to decide us
Sir, I demand — I am a maid named Iris
No, set a maple here, help a mate, son
Poor Dan is in a droop
Yawn a more Roman way
Won’t lovers revolt now?
Pull a bat, I hit a ball up
Nurse, I spy gypsies, run!
Stephen, my hat — ah, what a hymn, eh, pets?
Pull up if I pull up
… and the remarkably natural “Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.”
Mercer didn’t confine himself to palindromes — he also devised this mathematical limerick:
A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.
n. a person who is five-eighths black and three-eighths white by descent
n. a person who is three-fourths black and one-fourth white
n. a person having one white and one black parent
The ultimate in racist lunacy was reached in Haiti in the eighteenth century, where Saint-Mery developed a classification of physical types based on the notion that each individual was divisible into no less than 128 separate parts (rather like genes):
‘Thus a blanc (white) had 128 parts white, a nègre (Negro) 128 parts black, and the offspring a mulâtre (mulatto) 64 parts white and 64 parts black. In addition, he also listed sacatra (8 to 23 parts white), griffe (24 to 39 parts white), marabou (40 to 48); quateron (71 to 100); metif (101 to 112); mamelouc (113 to 120); quateronné (121 to 124) and finally a sang-mêlé (125 to 127).’
Given the additional presence of Indians as well as Negroes, Mexican castas were even more complex.
– Peter Worsley, The Three Worlds: Culture and World Development, 1984
n. the state of being a widow
- SWARTHMORE is an anagram of EARTHWORMS.
- The sum of the reciprocals of the divisors of any perfect number is 2.
- We recite at a play and play at a recital.
- Is sawhorse the past tense of seahorse?
- “Things ’twas hard to bear ’tis pleasant to recall.” — Seneca
In Book II, Chapter 9, of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a sentence begins “For a time I stood regarding …” These words contain 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, and 9 letters.