Language

It Begins

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Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wude nu–
Sing cuccu!

— English round, 1260

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

— Ezra Pound, 1917

The names of the 12 months can be anagrammed into these lines:

Merry, durable, just grace
My every future month embrace;
No jars remain, joy bubble up apace.

But poet and journalist George Ellis (1753-1815) summed them up this way:

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Moppy, Croppy, Droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.

In a Word

hindermate
n. a companion who hinders; opposite of helpmate

Fitting

checkbook

… balances. The bottom half of each letter mirrors the top.

In a Word

unlove
v. to cease to love

Targeted Advertising

New York florist Max Schling once placed an ad in the New York Times that was written entirely in shorthand.

Hundreds of curious businessmen passed the ad on to their secretaries, requesting a translation.

The secretaries read: “When getting flowers for the boss’s wife, remember Schling’s Florist.”

Formal Speech

A puzzle by Isaac Asimov:

What word in the English language changes its pronunciation when it is capitalized?

Click for Answer

In a Word

artolater
n. a worshiper of bread

Around the World

Shift each letter in EMBLAZONRY forward 13 places in the alphabet and you get an anagram of EMBLAZONRY:

emblazonry lettershift to anagram

Slow Maltreated Wailing

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William Gladstone was cursed with a well-balanced name, one that his political enemies found well suited to anagrams. The conservative-minded Lewis Carroll found that WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE can be rearranged to spell both WILD AGITATOR! MEANS WELL and WILT TEAR DOWN ALL IMAGES?

The prime minister might have shrugged this off as a coincidence — “wild agitator” might mean anything, after all — but a more painstaking student found that RIGHT HONOURABLE WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE spells I’M A WHIG WHO’LL BE A TRAITOR TO ENGLAND’S RULE.

Which is rather too specific to disown.

Curiosities of Idiom

Breaking both wings of an army is almost certain to make it fly; a general may win the day in a battle fought at night; a lawyer may convey a house, and yet be unable to lift a hundred pounds; a room may be full of married men, and not have a single man in it; a traveler who is detained an hour or two may recover most of the time by making a minute of it; a man killed in a duel has at least one second to live after he is dead; a fire goes out, and does not leave the room; a lady may wear a suit out the first day she gets it, and put it away at night in as good a condition as ever; a schoolmaster with no scholar may yet have a pupil in his eye; the bluntest man in business is generally the sharpest one; Ananias, it is said, told a lie, and yet he was borne out by the by-standers; caterpillars turn over a new leaf without much moral improvement; oxen can only eat corn with the mouth, yet you may give it to them in the ear; food bolted down is not the most likely to remain on the stomach; soft water is often caught when it rains hard; high words between men are frequently low words; steamboat officers are very pleasant company, and yet we are always glad to have them give us a wide berth; a nervous man is trembling, faint, weak, while a nervous style and a man of nerve is strong, firm, and vigorous.

— John Walker Vilant Macbeth, The Might and Mirth of Literature, 1876

Threefer

MINE (English), MIEN (French), and MEIN (German) are synonyms and anagrams in three languages.

In a Word

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moonglade
n. the reflection of moonlight on a body of water

I Contain Multitudes

OPERAS is the plural of OPERA, which is the plural of OPUS.

Misc

  • SCINTILLESCENT contains 7 pairs of letters.
  • Rub two pennies together and you’ll see a third between them.
  • Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day.
  • 1285 = (1 + 28) × 5
  • Squeeze an orange peel into a candle flame and you’ll produce a burst of fire.

Switching Polarity

BEST and WORST are synonyms when used as verbs:

he bested his opponent, he worsted his opponent

But they’re antonyms when used as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns:

the best player, the worst player

it best suits his skills, it worst suits his skills

I am the best, I am the worst

William James wrote, “Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought.”

In a Word

paraskavedekatriaphobia
n. fear of Friday the 13th

Giving Pause

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Harold Ross personally edited every issue of the New Yorker between 1925 and 1951. Unfortunately, he was a fiend for commas, peppering every sentence until all possible ambiguity was removed. An example from 1948:

“When I read, the other day, in the suburban-news section of a Boston newspaper, of the death of Mrs. Abigail Richardson Sawyer (as I shall call her), I was, for the moment, incredulous, for I had always thought of her as one of nature’s indestructibles.”

His writers hated this. James Thurber revised Wordsworth:

She lived, alone, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference, to me.

And E.B White wrote, “Commas in the New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”

But Ross was immovable. “We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here,” he acknowledged to H.L. Mencken, “probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don’t know how to get it under control.”

So on it went. A correspondent once asked Thurber why Ross had added the comma to the sentence “After dinner, the men went into the living-room.” Thurber responded, “This particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

In a Word

patrizate
v. to imitate one’s father

father-better
adj. surpassing one’s father

father-waur
adj. worse than one’s father

Lay of the Deserted Influenzaed

Doe, doe!
I shall dever see her bore!
Dever bore our feet shall rove
The beadows as of yore!
Dever bore with byrtle boughs
Her tresses shall I twide–
Dever bore her bellow voice
Bake bellody with bide!
Dever shall we lidger bore,
Abid the flow’rs at dood,
Dever shall we gaze at dight
Upon the tedtder bood!
Ho, doe, doe!
Those berry tibes have flowd,
Ad I shall dever see her bore,
By beautiful! by owd!
Ho, doe, doe!
I shall dever see her bore,
She will forget be id a bonth,
(Bost probably before)–
She will forget the byrtle boughs,
The flow’rs we plucked at dood,
Our beetigs by the tedtder stars.
Our gazigs at the bood.
Ad I shall dever see agaid
The Lily and the Rose;
The dabask cheek! the sdowy brow!
The perfect bouth ad dose!
Ho, doe, doe!
Those berry tibes have flowd –
Ad I shall dever see her bore,
By beautiful! by owd!!

— Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell, Puck on Pegasus, 1868

Lonely Words

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What is gopher wood? Noah used it to build his ark, but there’s no other reference to it in the Bible.

Similarly, no one’s quite sure what a kankedort is. It appears in one passage in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and myghte whisprynge of hem here,
And thoughte, “O Lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to deye, or han anon comfort!”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it helplessly as an awkward situation or affair and says it’s “of unascertained etymology.”

See Hapax Legomenon.

Editorial License

Alexander III once wrote a warrant condemning a prisoner to transportation:

PARDON IMPOSSIBLE, TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA.

The man appealed to the czar’s wife, who transposed the comma:

PARDON, IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA.

The prisoner was released.

The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske once found this message attached to the mirror in her dressing room:

MARGARET ANGLIN SAYS MRS. FISKE IS THE BEST ACTRESS IN AMERICA.

She returned it to Anglin, who found she had added two commas:

MARGARET ANGLIN, SAYS MRS. FISKE, IS THE BEST ACTRESS IN AMERICA.

The Zealless Xylographer

(“Dedicated to the End of the Dictionary”)

A xylographer started to cross the sea
By means of a Xanthic Xebec;
But, alas! he sighed for the Zuyder Zee,
And feared he was in for a wreck.
He tried to smile, but all in vain,
Because of a Zygomatic pain;
And as for singing, his cheeriest tone
Reminded him of a Xylophone–
Or else, when the pain would sharper grow,
His notes were as keen as a Zuffolo.
And so it is likely he did not find
On board Xenodochy to his mind.
The fare was poor, and he was sure
Xerofphagy he could not endure;
Zoophagous surely he was, I aver,
This dainty and starving Xylographer.
Xylophagous truly he could not be–
No sickly vegetarian he!
He’d have blubbered like any old Zeuglodon
Had Xerophthalmia not come on.
And the end of it was he never again
In a Xanthic Xebec went sailing the main.

— Mary Mapes Dodge, Poems and Verses, 1904

A Manner of Speaking

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Image: Flickr

It’s said that when Christopher Wren completed St. Paul’s cathedral in 1708, Queen Anne told him his work was “awful, artificial, and amusing.”

He took this as a compliment — in those days these words meant awe-inspiring, artistic, and amazing.

In a Word

verbunkos
n. a dance performed to persuade people to enlist in the Hungarian army