n. the growing old together
The English scholar Alcuin devised this remarkable acrostic poem in the ninth century. The text can be read in conventional lines of Latin, and additional phrases are embedded in a symmetrical arrangement of lines that represent the cross inscribed upon the world:
Horizontal, top and bottom:
Crux decus es mundi Iessu de sanguine sancta (“Cross, you are the glory of the world, in Jesus’ blood sanctified”)
Suscipe sic talem rubicumdam celsa coronam (“Accept, exalted cross, from me this scarlet crown”)
Vertical, left and right:
Crux pia vera salus partes in quatuor orbis (“Pious cross, true salvation in the four corners of the world”)
Alma teneto tuam Christo dominane coronam (“Beneficent, take your crown, Christ being the Lord”)
Rector in orbe tuis sanavit saecla sigillis (“The ruler of the world saved generations by your sign”)
Surge lavanda tuae sunt saecula fonte fidei (“Rise, the world is cleansed in the font of faith”)
The diamond, representing the world (whose four corners are referenced in the vertical line on the left):
Salve sancta rubens, fregisti vincula mundi (“Hail holy scarlet, you have shattered the world’s shackles”)
Signa valete novis reserata salutibus orbi (“Wonders are manifest, revealed anew to the world in saving works”)
A translation of the full text:
Cross, you are the glory of the world, in Jesus’ blood sanctified.
God the king from the cross conveyed heaven’s judgment.
A victor he reigns, destroying evil and conquering the enemy,
Christ the great sacrifice nailed on the cross for us.
The shepherd by dying redeemed his sheep with his healing right hand.
Glorious, holy salvation from the venerable tree,
he seized the prize, shrugging off the ties of flesh.
Though in bonds the highest king freed us, and he himself
giving his life to the cross triumphed over death,
The kingdom of heaven gaped when the world’s enemy was destroyed.
The sign will be more manifest and all good people will wear it,
praising it with all strength; let all discern more profoundly
so that they may see how many his holy passion frees
from eternal sorrow, and see one thrown down by time
to heal those oppressed by the enemy’s torments; there
may the highest and true Joseph now be our salvation,
who suffered high upon the cross such that error can’t seduce
and poison men and drag them from the light of faith.
The ruler of the world saved generations by your sign.
You, my life, my salvation! For you alone my voice composes hymns,
and shall always sing the highest songs, clear and plain
with the plectrum; for David famous for his song
proves that it is proper for us to testify holiness continually
in elaborate style — accept that which I have just begun, O Christ supernal,
true salvation, great sufferer, you sacred and holy light. Now
the secular nations sing the beneficent sign of the cross,
all the earth trembles and in one accord proclaims
the fame of the cross. In prayer it reveals its inmost heart.
Now hear, vain men, confounded in evil:
The almighty shines forth. May blessed faith fill your hearts
and the serpent not drive them back to their old ways.
The highest and most faithful redeemer has restored us
to his kingdom, and has conquered by this sign the obdurate one,
toppling warlike Satan from the place he hazarded to rule.
Glorious cross, the world should loose its prayers to you.
Accept, exalted cross, from me this scarlet crown.
(From Monumenta Germaniae Historica, part one, 1880, and Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, eds., Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, 2013. Thanks, Brandon.)
Finnegans Wake is punctuated by ten thunderclaps, which occur at moments of crisis in the text. “A situation is presented, developed, and subjected to increasing stress until, with the thunder, a collapse, and suddenly a complementary situation that was latent in the first is seen to be in place,” writes scholar Eric McLuhan.
Like everything in Joyce, the claps’ meaning is open to question, but they’re not arbitrary: Each of the first nine words contains exactly 100 letters, and the tenth has 101. Joyce, who called thunder “perfect language,” had apparently adjusted the spelling of the thunderclaps as the book took shape: McLuhan found tick marks in Joyce’s galley proofs, “the only evidence of actual letter-counting I have found in any of the manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, and galleys.”
(Eric McLuhan, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, 1997.)
The Indonesian word for water is air.
The Czech word for guest is host.
The Basque word for cold is hotz.
The Hebrew word for she is he.
(Thanks, Alec and Daniel.)
“The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham,” wrote Mark Twain. “Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: ‘Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-chief of the Police Department,’ yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble: ‘Mrs.-late-commander-in-chief-of-the-police-department’s-widow-Smith.'” He gives this anecdote in his autobiography:
A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage — Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter — whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with beaming face. ‘I have captured the Beutelratte,’ said he. ‘Which one?’ said the mayor; ‘we have several.’ ‘The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.’ ‘Which attentäter are you talking about?’ ‘About the Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutterattentäter.’ ‘Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?’
He calls the long word “a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language.”
n. a piece of schoolwork imposed as a punishment
n. speaking or talking distance, voice-range
Inhabitants of La Gomera, a small mountainous island in the Canary group, use a whistled language called the Silbo to communicate over great distances. “This is a form of telephony inferior to ours as regards range, but superior to it in so far as the only apparatus required is a sound set of teeth and a good pair of lungs,” noted Glasgow University phoneticist André Classe in New Scientist in 1958. “The normal carrying power is up to about four kilometres when conditions are good, over twice as much in the case of an exceptional whistler operating under the most favourable circumstances.”
n. the cultivation of an unusually and enviably excellent lawn
The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”
The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:
I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.
“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”
n. a description of the sea
Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:
The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.
Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”
Most restrooms use simple labels such as MEN and WOMEN, but some are more creative. R. Robinson Rowe shared his collection in Word Ways in February 1977:
He added, “I was reminded of an incident at the treaty congress in San Francisco in 1952, when Japanese delegates unfamiliar with our language were briefed on the nomenclature of hotel restrooms: MEN would be a shorter word than WOMEN. An amused press reported their confusion and embarrassment when they were lodged in a posh hotel with facilities labelled GENTLEMEN and LADIES.”
v. to grow dark, to become night
In 1948 Melvin Wellman discovered this pretty anagram:
ELEVEN + TWO = TWELVE + ONE
And Dave Morice found this:
THIRTEEN + TWENTY – ONE = (NINETY / TWO) – TEN – THREE
Lee Sallows discovered two similar specimens in Spanish:
UNO + CATORCE = CUATRO + ONCE
DOS + TRECE = TRES + DOCE
These can be combined to make more:
UNO + DOS + TRECE + CATORCE = TRES + CUATRO + ONCE + DOCE
UNO + TRES + DOCE + CATORCE = DOS + CUATRO + ONCE + TRECE
n. a prayer or devout wish
An 1898 item in the New York Times notes that William Gladstone once attended a Presbyterian service in Scotland where the minister said, “We pray Thee, Lord, of Thy goodness, to bless the Prime Minister of this great nation, who is now worshipping under this roof in the third pew from the pulpit.” And a Presbyterian minister opening an outdoor event reportedly prayed, “In consequence of the rain, O Lord, and by reason of the regretted absence of the Princess of Lochnagar, caused, doubtless, by the stormy weather, I do not purpose to address Thee at any length.”
Before a battle in the Irish rebellion of 1641, John Leslie, bishop of Clogher, prayed, “O God, for our unworthiness we are not fit to claim Thy help: but if we are bad our enemies are worse, and if Thou seest not meet to help us, we pray Thee help them not, but stand Thou neuter this day, and leave it to the arm of flesh.”
(During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “We, on our side, are praying to Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray to Him, look for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?”)
In his 1863 history of France, Victor Duruy tells of a soldier named La Hire who sought absolution from a priest during the siege of Montargis in 1427. The priest asked him to confess first, and he said, “I have not time, for I must fall upon the English. But I have done all that a man of war is wont to do.” The chaplain gave him absolution such as it was, and La Hire fell on his knees by the roadside and said, “God, I pray thee that to-day thou wilt do for La Hire that which thou wouldst have La Hire do for thee, if he were God and thou were La Hire.”
Others think the notion of a timeless God, with its perceptual metaphor of God passively perceiving each and every moment of time in a single, unchanging, comprehensive vision, fails to give God the freedom to act in creation, in particular, in the future. Suppose a student receives acceptances from three different universities and is trying to decide which to attend. She prays to God: ‘Lord, at which of the three universities will I have the best overall collegiate experience?’ On the timelessness view, God sees only the choice our petitioner actually makes, not the alternative futures that would have transpired had she chosen to go elsewhere. So how can God answer this prayer?
— W. Jay Wood, God, 2011
“Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'” — Turgenev
See Asking Back.
n. the act of loving in return
Zelda to Scott Fitzgerald, spring 1919 or 1920:
I look down the tracks and see you coming – and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me – Without you, dearest dearest I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think – or live – I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you. I want to kiss you so – and in the back where your dear hair starts and your chest – I love you – and I can’t tell you how much – To think that I’ll die without your knowing – Goofo, you’ve got to try to feel how much I do – how inanimate I am when you’re gone – I can’t even hate these damnable people – Nobodys got any right to live but us – and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so – Come Quick – Come Quick to me – I could never do without you if you hated me and were covered with sores like a leper – if you ran away with another woman and starved me and beat me – I still would want you I know –
Lover, Lover, Darling –
adj. poor or impecunious
adj. lacking wealth or resources; needy
n. government by the poor
n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness
Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:
Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep
In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:
rua torta lua morta tua porta.
Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.
“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.
“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”
n. a young girl
n. a coquettish manner or air
n. a chiding, reproof, or rebuke
adj. clad in purple
Applicants for radio announcing jobs in the 1920s had to a pass a diction test — New York Daily News radio critic Ben Gross gives this example in his 1954 book I Looked and I Listened:
“Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.”
In the 1940s Radio Central New York administered a cold reading to prospective radio personalities to assess their speaking ability — announcer Del Moore found it so entertaining that he gave it to his friend Jerry Lewis, who made it a staple of his annual muscular dystrophy telethon:
n. “Name for a devil said to collect fragments of words dropped, skipped, or mumbled in the recitation of divine service, and to carry them to hell, to be registered against the offender.” [OED]
adj. skilled in language
adj. fascinated by words
n. cunning in words; “verbal legerdemain”
n. limited knowledge of languages
In North Wales the Welsh word for ‘now’ is ‘rwan.’ In South Wales it is ‘rwan’ spelt backwards, viz., ‘nawr.’ It is conjectured that the first North Walian who made use of the word was standing on his head at the time, and that his pronunciation became general.
— The Cambrian, May 1901
n. an inability to act decisively
n. a coward