Moving Language

Writing in Word Ways in May 1975, David Silverman noted that the phrase LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY, stenciled in the leftmost traffic lane at various U.S. intersections, was ambiguous — and that both meanings had been struck down, in contested court cases in Arizona and California.

In one case, the motorist had driven straight ahead rather than turning, which the prosecutor said was illegal. The motorist returned that this wasn’t so — LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY meant that it would be illegal to make a left turn from any other lane, but it didn’t require that a left turn be made from this one. “If the city had meant my failure to turn to be illegal, they should have written FROM THIS LANE, ONLY A LEFT TURN.”

In the other case, the motorist had made a left turn from the lane to the right of one marked LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY. He argued that this was legal — the marking required drivers in the leftmost lane to turn left, but imposed no requirement on the other lanes. “Had the city wanted to make my turn illegal the marking should have been LEFT TURN ONLY FROM THIS LANE.”

Both motorists were found not guilty. Perhaps because of such confusion, Silverman noted, most intersections had lately begun to use unambiguous arrows: “One good picture is worth ten thousand signs reading LEFT TURN IF AND ONLY IF FROM THIS LANE.”

Dream Sentences

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antonio_de_Pereda_(1611-1678)_-_Visioen_van_een_ridder_(na_1650)_-_Madrid_Bellas_Artes_21-03-2010_11-15-11.jpg

After taking opium at Malta, Coleridge dreamed of the sentence “Varrius thus prophesied vinegar at his door by damned frigid tremblings.”

Delirious with fever in Scotland, Maria Edgeworth was haunted by the words “A soldier of the forty-second has lost his portmanteau.”

In a vision at Lerici, Shelley met his own figure, which asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”

Poet William Mickle regretted that he could not remember the poetry he composed in his dreams, which he said was “infinitely superior to anything he produced in his waking hours.” But his wife recited two lines he had spoken in his sleep:

By Heaven, I’ll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose.

Robert Browning dreamed that he attended a performance of Richard III and heard a line “immensely finer than anything else in the play. … When I woke I still had hold of the stupendous line, and it was this:

‘And when I wake my dreams are madness — Damn me!'”

Penmanship

In 1942 Niels Bohr was asked to give an address on the 300th anniversary of Isaac Newton’s birth. In discussing with Abraham Pais the themes that he might address, he wrote the word harmony on a blackboard:

bohr handwriting - harmony

As they continued to talk he grew dissatisfied with this. At last he said, “Now I’ve got it. We must change harmony to uniformity.” And he did so with “one triumphant bang”:

bohr handwriting - uniformity

Pais called this “the most remarkable act of calligraphy I shall ever witness.”

See Letter From New York.

Kid Lit

In 1967 Luis d’Antin Van Rooten published Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames, a collection of French poems that make little sense until you read them aloud:

Oh, les mots d’heureux bardes
Où en toutes heures que partent.
Tous guetteurs pour dock à Beaune.
Besoin gigot d’air
De que paroisse paire.
Et ne pour dock, pet-de-nonne.

Et qui rit des curés d’Oc?
De Meuse raines, houp! de cloques.
De quelles loques ce turque coin.
Et ne d’ânes ni rennes,
Écuries des curés d’Oc.

In 1980 Ormonde de Kay met this with N’Heures Souris Rames:

Très bel aï n’ de maïs
Si à Oudh héronne.
Des Halles Roi Naphte de phare mer soif
Chicot taffetas tel suite de carvi naïf.
Didier voyou si sachée saille t’ignore l’aï
Fesse très bel aï n’ de maïs.

Rabais dab dab
Trille, ménine, taupe.
Hindou d’yeux tines, que débit?
Débouchoir du bécarre
De canne d’élastique maigre.
Trop d’émaux, nefs alterés.

And in 1981 John Hulme expanded into German with Mörder Guss Reims:

Schach an Schill! Wend’ ab die Hilde —
Fesch Appel, oh Worte!
Schachfell Daunen, Brockensgrauen,
Und Schill Keim Tuümpel in Naphtha.

Pater keck, Pater keck, Bechers Mann.
Bigamie er keck es Festeschuh kann.
Batet und Brikett und Marktwitwe Tie
Und Butter, Tinte offen fort Omi Anämie.

Um die Dumm’ die Saturn Aval;
Um die Dumm’ die Ader Grät’ fahl.
Alter ging’s Ohr säss und Alter ging’s mähen.
Kuh denn “putt” um Dieter Gitter er gähn.

“In this lively allegorical poem a foolish Greek maiden becomes embroiled with the supernatural and is rescued in the nick of time from a fate worse than immortality by being turned into a cow.”

See also “It Means Just What I Choose It to Mean” and Read It Aloud.

(I think de Kay is the same fellow who proposed the theory of continental drip — a very playful man!)

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.