Sign Play

Like any language, sign language partakes in jokes, puns, and wordplay. Dorothy Miles’ poem “Unsound Views” observes that hearing people seem to be slaves to their telephones. In English, there’s no obvious pun in the next-to-last line, “They live to serve their telephone God.” But in British Sign Language it runs


“Here, the aerial on the telephone handset is signed with the ‘G’ handshape that refers to long, thin objects,” explains Rachel Sutton-Spence in Analysing Sign Language Poetry. “The BSL sign GOD is also made using a ‘G’ handshape, albeit in a different location, but when the aerial is moved up to the location where GOD is normally articulated, the pun elevates the telephone to the status of a god.”

One more: In Miles’ poem “Exaltation,” a stand of trees seems to part the sky “And let the peace of heaven shine softly through.” In the American Sign Language version, this can be glossed as ALLOW PEACE OF HEAVEN LIGHT-SHINES LIGHT/HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD. The form of the sign LIGHT is made with a fully open ‘5’ handshape, but in this context the handshape can be seen simply as a hand. “If LIGHT-TOUCHES-HEAD is interpreted as HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD, the obvious question is ‘Whose hand?’ and the obvious answer is ‘God’s.’ In many cultures, placing hands gently upon a person’s head is taken as a blessing.”

In a Word

n. wrong opinion or doctrine

n. a recognition, an acknowledgement

adj. speaking the truth

Chlorine was at first thought to be an oxide obtained from hydrochloric acid, then known as muriatic acid, and was hence called oxymuriatic acid.

In 1810 Sir Humphry Davy realized that it’s an element and proposed the name chlorine, meaning green-yellow. Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius resisted this at first but revealed his change of heart unexpectedly one day, as overheard by his colleague Friedrich Wöhler:

One day Anna Sundström, who was cleaning a vessel at the tub, remarked that it smelt strongly of oxymuriatic acid. Wöhler’s earlier surprise sublimed into astonishment when he heard Berzelius correct her, in words that have since become historic: ‘Hark thou, Anna, thou mayest now speak no more of oxymuriatic acid; but must say chlorine: that is better.’

[Hör’ Anna, Du darfst nun nicht mehr sagen oxydirte Salzsäure, sondern musst sagen Chlor, das ist besser.]

In Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, John Read writes, “These words, issuing from the mouth of the great chemical lawgiver of the age, sealed the fate of oxymuriatic acid.”

A Little Help

In 1987, a Palermo physicist named Stronzo Bestiale published major papers in the Journal of Statistical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the proceedings of a meeting of the American Physical Society in Monterey.

Why is this remarkable? Stronzo bestiale is Italian for “total asshole.”

Italian journalist Vito Tartamella wrote to one of “Bestiale’s” co-authors, Lawrence Livermore physicist William G. Hoover, to get the story. Hoover had been developing a sophisticated new computational technique, non-equilibrium molecular dynamics, with Italian physicist Giovanni Ciccotti. He found that the journals he approached refused to publish his papers — the ideas they contained were too innovative. But:

While I was traveling on a flight to Paris, next to me were two Italian women who spoke among themselves, saying continually: ‘Che stronzo (what an asshole)!’, ‘Stronzo bestiale (total asshole)’. Those phrases had stuck in my mind. So, during a CECAM meeting, I asked Ciccotti what they meant. When he explained it to me, I thought that Stronzo Bestiale would have been the perfect co-author for a refused publication. So I decided to submit my papers again, simply by changing the title and adding the name of that author. And the researches were published.

Renato Angelo Ricci, president of the Italian Physical Society, called the joke “an offense to the entire Italian scientific community.” But Hoover had learned a lesson: He thanked “Bestiale” at the end of another 1987 paper, saying that discussions with him had been “particularly useful.”

(From Parolacce, via Language Log. Thanks, Daniel.)


A spelling net is the pattern made when one writes down one instance of each unique letter that appears in a word and then connects these letters with lines, spelling out the word. For instance, the spelling net for VIVID is made by writing down the letters V, I, and D and drawing a line from V to I, I to V, V to I, and I to D.

Different words produce different spelling nets, of course, but every spelling net is an example of a graph, a collection of points connected by lines. A graph is said to be non-planar if some of the lines must cross; in the case of the spelling net, this means that no matter how we arrange the letters on the page, when we connect them in order we find that at least two of the lines must cross.

A word with a non-planar spelling net is called an eodermdrome, an ungainly name that itself illustrates the idea. The unique letters in EODERMDROME are E, O, D, R, and M. Write these down and run a pen among them, spelling out the word. You’ll find that no matter how the letters are arranged, it’s never possible to complete the task without at least two of the lines crossing:
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ross Eckler sought all the eodermdromes in Webster’s second and third editions; another example he found is SUPERSATURATES:
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since spelling nets are graphs, they can be studied with the tools of graph theory, the mathematical study of such networks. One result from that discipline says that a graph is non-planar if and only if it can be reduced to one of the two patterns marked K5 and K(3, 3) above. Since both EODERMDROME and SUPERSATURATES contain these forbidden graphs, both are non-planar.

A good article describing recreational eodermdrome hunting, by computer scientists Gary S. Bloom, John W. Kennedy, and Peter J. Wexler, is here. One warning: They note that, with some linguistic flexibility, the word eodermdrome can be interpreted to mean “a course on which to go to be made miserable.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1581, using a “shewstone,” or crystal, astrologer John Dee and seer Edward Kelley set out to discover knowledge that couldn’t be gleaned from books or experimentation.

They succeeded: Angels gave them the “Celestial Speech,” the language that God used to create the world and taught to Adam, who lost it in his fall from paradise.

After transmitting the 21-letter alphabet above, Dee said, the angels sent him a series of texts, some with translations, that formed the basis for a vocabulary.

Some features of “Enochian” suggest that Dee was “speaking in tongues” while transcribing the language, while others show suspicious similarities to English grammar and syntax. But then, Dee maintained that modern languages arose through Adam’s attempts to reconstruct the language he had lost.

“No language has a stranger history than the Enochian language,” wrote Australian linguist Donald Laycock, who studied the curious system. “Perhaps strangest of all is that we still do not know whether it is a natural language or an invented language — or whether it is, perhaps, the language of the angels, as its originators believed.”


A Scrabble player needs a way to recognize the potential in any collection of tiles. If your rack contains the seven letters AIMNSTU, for example, what eighth letter should you be watching for to create an acceptable eight-letter word?

If you arrange your seven letters into the word TSUNAMI, and if you’ve memorized the corresponding phrase COASTAL HARM, then you have your answer: Any of the letters in that phrase will produce an acceptable eight-letter word:


TSUNAMI: COASTAL HARM is an example of an anamonic (“anagram mnemonic”), a tool that tournament players use to memorize valuable letter combinations. Devising useful anamonics is itself an art form in the Scrabble community — one has to create a memorable phrase using a constrained set of letters. Some are memorable indeed:


“One of the first anamonics I ever read, back in 1998, was PRIEST: EVERYONE COMPLAINED OF THE SODOMY,” wrote Jeff Myers in Word Ways in May 2007. “I couldn’t believe it. The letters in that phrase — no more and no less — could combine with PRIEST to make 7-letter words.”

When the word list TWL06 appeared, PERITUS became a legal word. That’s PRIEST + U, so the mnemonic phrase now needed to include a U. “One simple fix is: EVERYONE COMPLAINED OF YOUTH SODOMY,” wrote Myers. “Now maybe even more startling.”

John Chew maintains canonical lists of anamonics using the official Tournament Word List and the alternate SOWPODS list.

In a Word

adj. high-flying

adj. capable of being seen, visible

n. a source of fear

John Lithgow’s eyes pop out of his head momentarily at the climax of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the final segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). In the segment, a remake of the famous television episode from 1963, Lithgow plays a nervous air passenger who discovers a gremlin on the wing of his plane. At the moment when he lifts the shade, the edit shows the monster for 17 frames, then Lithgow’s face for 10 frames, then the monster for 42 frames, and then a 5-frame shot of Lithgow’s head incorporating the eye-popping effect.

Of these 5 frames, the first three show a wild-eyed Lithgow, the fourth shows bulging eyes, and the fifth is shown below. “This 5-frame sequence is on the screen for 1/5 second, but the most distorted image is only visible for 1/24 second,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “Blink at the wrong time, and you miss it. But if you watch the shot carefully at normal speed, the sequence is detectable. Lithgow’s eyes seem to inflate with an accelerated, cartoon-like quality.”

Here’s the frame:

twilight zone movie

Two Odd Etymologies

Nachos are named after a person, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, who owned a restaurant known as El Moderno in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, in the early 1940s. Around 1943 he began serving fried tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers, calling the dish “Nacho’s Especiales.”

The taser’s name was inspired by a 1911 adventure book for boys, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, involving a rifle that fires electricity rather than bullets. The taser’s inventor, NASA scientist Jack Cover, thought this was an apt description of his own weapon, so he made an acronym of Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle.

Both origins are borne out by the Oxford English Dictionary.


Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife, Mina, in Morse code.

“My later courtship was carried on by telegraph,” he wrote in his diary. “I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak of it, she might have found it harder.”