Thrills and Intrigue

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.

Sensible Nonsense

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jabberwocky.jpg

“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
Frumiösen Banderschnätzchen!«

Er griff sein vorpals Schwertchen zu,
Er suchte lang das manchsam’ Ding;
Dann, stehend unten Tumtum Baum,
Er an-zu-denken-fing.

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.”

In a Word

polysemant
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:

rosemary
sea spray
the walrus

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.

Pillow Talk

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?

Doctor Doctor

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

More here. In 1977 authors A.J. Splatt and D. Weedon submitted an article on incontinence to the British Journal of Urology. It was accepted.

Square Deal

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:

square deal

Now each line contains 12 letters — and in each instance the numbers named total 23! What does this mean?

The Master’s Voice

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hogarth,_William_-_David_Garrick_as_Richard_III_-_1745.jpg

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:

http://books.google.com/books?id=OjgJAAAAQAAJ

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.