Sound and Sense

In this passage from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, the mail-clad Sir Bedivere carries his wounded king down to a lake by a narrow path along a cliff:

Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels —
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.

“This passage is particularly interesting in the sudden change from the harsh imitative sounds describing the trip itself to the peaceful passage, dominated by liquids and nasals, representing the arrival at the shore,” writes Calvin Brown in Music and Literature.

He gives two examples of poets attempting to imitate musical timbres. Detlev von Liliencron’s Die Musik kommt describes the progress of a military band through a little German village:

Klingling, tschingtsching und Paukenkrach,
Noch aus der Ferne tönt es schwach,
Ganz leise bumbumbumbum tsching,
Zog da ein bunter Schmetterling,
Tschingtsching, bum, um die Ecke?

And the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne famously imitates a violin:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

In The Craft of Translation, John Biguenet writes, “English simply has no matching nasal sounds in words that would convey the meaning, unless we turn to trombones, and then we have changed instruments.”

In a Word

n. cessation of labor

v. to extend hospitality to

adj. disposed to follow a leader

adj. brought back to one’s senses

I spent an evening at the house of the president of Harvard University. The party was waited on at tea by a domestic of the president’s, who is also Major of the Horse. On cavalry days, when guests are invited to dine with the regiment, the major, in his regimentals, takes the head of the table, and has the president on his right hand. He plays the host as freely as if no other relation existed between them. The toasts being all transacted, he goes home, doffs his regimentals, and waits on the president’s guests at tea.

— Harriet Martineau, Society in America, 1837

Long Hand,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

The framers of medieval charters needed to make them visually striking and memorable — relatively few people would be able to understand the Latin legalities, but many would see the documents, and in order to carry authority they had to look different from ordinary texts, remarkable and unique.

One way to do this was with “an altogether peculiar sort of writing, of which the first characteristic is elongation,” writes Nicolete Gray in Lettering as Drawing. In this charter given by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to the bishopric of Bamberg in 1057, the text is written in long, attenuated letters:,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

“The strange letter forms impress themselves, due to their difference from the norm, on the peoples’ consciousness and they thus endow the charter with a kind of aura that sets it apart,” writes Laurence de Looze in The Letter & the Cosmos. The signatures were often elaborate for the same reason: “A trace of worldly power is carried over into the writing, the letter forms performing this transfer of the power from the people who created the charter into the document itself.”

In a Word

v. to prepare or apply oneself

adv. elegantly; cleverly; ingeniously

n. utter perfection

n. a great or wonderful thing

A villainous Nazi named Roehm
Was searching for rhymes matching “poem.”
Then, chortling with glee,
Stated that he
Had found one at last. “That’ll show ’em!”

— J.M. Crais

More Word Sums

Back in 2012 I mentioned that if A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.

Peter Dawyndt of Ghent University challenged his students to come up with more, and they found these:

WHITE (65) + HOUSE (68) = GOVERNMENT (133)
PETER (64) + PAN (31) = NEVERLAND (95)
COMIC (43) + BOOK (43) = FANTASY (86)
ABSENT (61) + MINDED (49) = FORGETFUL (110)
BLOOD (48) + BATH (31) = MASSACRE (79)
DRUG (50) + ADDICT (41) = STONER (91)
MICRO (58) + SOFT (60) = COMPUTING (118)
RED (27) + BULL (47) = COCKTAIL (74)
EGG (19) + PLANT (63) = AUBERGINE (82)
CUSTARD (86) + CREAM (40) = BISCUITRY (126)
VISUAL (84) + BASIC (34) = MICROSOFT (118)
MONA (43) + LISA (41) = LEONARDO (84)
DOWN (56) + LOAD (32) = ITUNES (88)
BLACK (29) + JACK (25) = VEGAS (54)
SUN (54) + RISE (51) = HORIZON (105)
POLICE (60) + CAR (22) = PATROL (82)
CHURCH (61) + MAN (28) = RELIGION (89)
FAMILY (66) + TREE (48) = ANCESTORS (114)
HAND (27) + GUN (42) = MAGNUM (69)
RAIN (42) + BOW (40) = COLORS (82)
ANT (35) + LION (50) = DOODLEBUG (85)
BOTTOM (85) + LINE (40) = CONCLUSION (125)
BACK (17) + SLASH (59) = HYPHEN (76)
BILL (35) + FOLD (37) = MONEY (72)
URBAN (56) + LEGEND (47) = BULLSHIT (103)
CALL (28) + GIRL (46) = HARLOT (74)
STAR (58) + TREK (54) = VOYAGERS (112)

Names of famous people:

JOHN (47) + CLEESE (49) = HUMOUR (96)
TOM (48) + HANKS (53) = FORREST (101)
BOB (19) + MARLEY (74) = RASTAFARI (93)
KURT (70) + COBAIN (44) = NOVOSELIC (114)
EMMA (32) + WATSON (92) = VOLDEMORT (124)
JAMES (48) + BOND (35) = DANIEL (45) + CRAIG (38)
GEORGE (57) + LUCAS (56) = JAR (29) + JAR (29) + BINKS (55)
STEPHEN (87) + HAWKING (73) = TEXT (69) + TO (35) + SPEECH (56)
CLOCKWORK (111) + ORANGE (60) = STANLEY (96) + KUBRICK (75)

(Thanks, Peter.)

No, Seriously

When Bertrand Russell was invited to China in 1920, he thought it might be a hoax — the letter was signed “Fu Ling-yu.”

When the Russells reached Peking, “the mystery of Mr Fu Ling-yu was solved in the person of Professor Fu, a tall Northern Chinese, young and handsome and of extremely fine presence.”

(From Dora Russell’s memoir The Tamarisk Tree.)


don martin sound effects

Don Martin’s cartoons in MAD magazine were famous for their sound effects:

  • ARGLE GLARGLE GLORGLE GLUK: princess using mouthwash
  • BUKKIDA BUKKIDA BAKKIDA BAKKIDA: boxer pummeling opponent’s head
  • CHOOK CHOOK CHOOK CHOOK: man digging
  • DOOT: doctor hitting patient’s knee with a hammer
  • FAGWOOSH SHOSSH GOOGLOOOM FUSH: sounds heard in a seashell
  • FLOOT THWIP THOP KLOP: a man folds up a beach umbrella
  • FOOWOOM: flamethrower
  • FWISK FWISK FWISKITTY FWASK: man sweeping a desert island
  • GEEEN: Plastic Man giving the finger to a guy on the 32nd floor
  • KITTOONG SHKLUNK: brain thrown into Frankenstein’s head like a basketball
  • KOONG: man hit in head with wheelbarrow full of cement
  • MOWM: atomic blast
  • POING POING POING: pogo stick
  • SHKWITZ SHKWITZ: man cleaning eyeglasses
  • SLOOPLE GLIK SPLORP: man eating soup
  • WUNK SPWAPPO KATOONK SPLAT: passengers attacking a hijacker

Doug Gilford maintains an online dictionary.

Many Roads

The Spanish monk Florentius made a humble appeal to posterity in 945: Start at the F at top center, and as long as your path works steadily either southeast or southwest you’ll spell out FLORENTIUM INDIGNUM MEMORARE, “Remember unworthy Florentius.”

His manuscript is now in the Biblioteca Nacional de España, so it appears he got his wish.

In a Word

v. to move away or apart; to lose contact; to separate

n. something located in an incongruous position

n. greatness of distance; remoteness

adj. troubled; distressed

In 2007 Brazilian villagers were surprised to discover a 16-foot minke whale on a sandbank in the Tapajos River, 1,000 miles from the sea. Apparently it had got separated from its group in the Atlantic and swum up the Amazon.

After two days, rescuers managed to return it to the water. “What we can definitely say is that it lost its way,” biologist Fabia Luna told Globo television. “It entered the river, which on its own is unusual. But then to have travelled around 1,500 kilometers is both strange and adverse.”

Brazil’s environmental agency said the whale might have been in the region for two months before it was spotted. “It is outside of its normal habitat, in a strange situation, under stress, and far from the ocean,” said whale expert Katia Groch. “The probability of survival is low.”