n. an early flower
Already now the Snowdrop dares appear,
The first pale blossom of the unripened year:
As Flora’s breath, by some transforming power,
Had changed an icicle into a flower:
Its name and hue the scentless plant retains
And Winter lingers in its icy veins.
— Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)
In the 19th century, feeling expansive, the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll extended its name to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, meaning “The Church of Mary of White Hazel Pool quite near the rapid whirlpool, the church of Tysilio under a red cave.”
In the same spirit, the gift shop in Llangollen bears the name Ysiopfachgardiauwrthybontdrosyrafonddyfrdwyynllangollen. It means “The little card shop by the bridge over the river Dee in Llangollen.”
n. the distance between two stopping places
Another puzzle by Sam Loyd: Two ferry boats ply the same route between ports on opposite sides of a river. They set out simultaneously from opposite ports, but one is faster than the other, so they meet at a point 720 yards from the nearest shore. When each boat reaches its destination, it waits 10 minutes to change passengers, then begins its return trip. Now the boats meet at a point 400 yards from the other shore. How wide is the river?
“The problem shows how the average person, who follows the cut-and-dried rules of mathematics, will be puzzled by a simple problem that requires only a slight knowledge of elementary arithmetic. It can be explained to a child, yet I hazard the opinion that ninety-nine out of every hundred of our shrewdest businessmen would fail to solve it in a week. So much for learning mathematics by rule instead of common sense which teaches the reason why!”
- Sue, dice, do, to decide us.
- Do Good’s deeds live on? No, Evil’s deeds do, O God.
- Marge let a moody baby doom a telegram.
- No, it can assess an action.
- Poor Dan is in a droop.
- Repel evil as a live leper.
- See few owe fees.
- Niagara, O roar again!
- No, set a maple here, help a mate, son.
- Too far, Edna, we wander afoot.
- “Reviled did I live,” said I, “as evil I did deliver.”
- No, it is opposition.
- Revered now, I live on. O, did I do no evil, I wonder, ever?
- Madame, not one man is selfless; I name not one, madam.
- Draw no dray a yard onward.
- Yawn a more Roman way.
- Doom an evil deed, liven a mood.
- See, slave, I demonstrate yet arts no medieval sees.
J.A. Lindon devised this vignette, which is one long palindrome if words, rather than letters, are taken as the unit: “On radios with noisy speakers everywhere glass and china rattles; waiters, many of one race, move forks and knives, while knives and forks move, race; one of many waiters rattles china and glass, everywhere speakers noisy, with radios on …”
Large word squares are dramatically harder to make than small ones. To date the largest anyone has managed to find are composed of 9-letter words:
Finding a perfect 10×10 word square has been a central goal for wordplay fans for more than 100 years. The task was looking impossible when in 1972 Dmitri Borgmann found an unexpected resource in the African journal of David Livingstone, whose entry for Sept. 26, 1872, reads:
Through forest, along the side of a sedgy valley. Cross its head-water, which has rust of iron in it, then west and by south. The forest has very many tsetse. Zebras calling loudly, and Senegal long claw in our camp at dawn, with its cry, ‘O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.’
This is exactly what was needed. Given a pen, the yellow-bellied longclaw, Macronyx flavigaster, could have drawn for Livingstone a perfect 10×10 word square:
We ought to consult other species more often. Any longclaw could have given us this contribution — indeed, this is the only word square the bird is capable of making!
n. an erroneous doctrine or tenet
“The phrases men are accustomed to repeat incessantly, end by becoming convictions and ossify the organs of intelligence.” — Goethe
“What fresh views would we acquire if we could for once eliminate from our capital of truisms all that is not intrinsic but has accrued through frequent repetition?” — G.C. Lichtenberg
“We are powerfully imprisoned in these Dark Ages simply by the terms in which we have been conditioned to think.” — Buckminster Fuller
“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as ‘necessities of thought,’ ‘a priori givens,’ etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors.” — Albert Einstein
“It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” — Alfred North Whitehead
adj. producing darkness
AMBIDEXTROUS is ambidextrous — its first half draws on the first half of the alphabet, its second on the second.
Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:
Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.
If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.
It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.
n. a duel
In 1842, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, published a letter in a Springfield newspaper criticizing the performance of the state’s auditor, James Shields. Shields, quick to anger, challenged Lincoln to a duel, and the two met on an island in the Mississippi River. As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the weapon, and he requested long cavalry broadswords. As he stood 7 inches taller than Shields, this gave him an enormous advantage, which he demonstrated by cutting a branch above Shields’ head. Accounts differ as to how the auditor responded — he either laughed or quailed — but the two agreed not to fight. Lincoln appears to have been embarrassed by the whole affair, and declined to discuss it in later years.
n. a lover of knowledge
n. ignorant; lacking knowledge
n. a lover of the truth
“Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.” — Sydney Smith
From a letter from Ben Franklin to John Lining of South Carolina, March 18, 1755:
I find a frank acknowledgment of one’s ignorance is not only the easiest way to get rid of a difficulty, but the likeliest way to obtain information, and therefore I practice it: I think it an honest policy. Those who affect to be thought to know every thing, and so undertake to explain every thing, often remain long ignorant of many things that others could and would instruct them in, if they appeared less conceited.
Write out the phrase “expect the devil.”
Extract the Roman numerals: eXpeCt the DeVIL
Add these: D (500) + C (100) + L (50) + X (10) + V (5) + I (1)
The total is 666.
adj. confining to the bed (“a lectual disease”)
n. a cough medicine
n. a medicine to be licked, such as a cough drop
n. a childless woman
n. a newborn child’s cry
adj. giving birth to a god
In 1964 Canadian writer Graeme Gibson bought a parrot in Mexico. The bird, which Gibson named Harold Wilson, was bright and affectionate at first, but he seemed to grow lonely in the dark Canadian winter, so in the spring Gibson made arrangements to donate him to the Toronto Zoo. At the aviary Gibson carried Harold into the cage that had been prepared for him, placed him on a perch, said his goodbyes, and turned to go.
“Then Harold did something that astonished me. For the very first time, and in exactly the voice my kids might have used, he called out ‘Daddy!’ When I turned to look at him he was leaning towards me expectantly. ‘Daddy’, he repeated.
“I don’t remember what I said to him. Something about him being happier there, that he’d soon make friends. The kind of things you say to kids when you abandon them at camp. But outside the aviary I could still hear him calling ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ as we walked away. I was shattered to discover that Harold knew my name, and that he did so because he’d identified himself with my children.
“I now believe he’d known it all along, but was using it — for the first time — out of desperation. Both Konrad Lorenz and Bernd Heinrich mention instances of birds calling out the private names of intimates when threatened by serious danger. I am no longer surprised by such information. We think of our captive birds as our pets, but perhaps we are theirs as well.”
(From Gibson’s Perpetual Motion, 1982.)
n. one addicted to immoderate tea-drinking
Incontrovertibly the greatest nickname in history is The Snodgering Blee, Charles Dickens’ name for his eldest son, Charley. Some further inventive handles:
- Thorpedo – Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe
- Bathing Towel – Robert Baden-Powell
- “Chariots” – English former rugby league and rugby union footballer Martin Offiah
- “Singing” – Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain
- Attila the Hen – Margaret Thatcher
- The Prince of Whales – George, Prince of Wales, later George IV (Leigh Hunt was sent to prison for calling him “a corpulent man of fifty”)
- The Lizard of Oz – former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, after putting his arm around the queen in 1992
- The Ambling Alp – Italian boxer Primo Carnera (6’5″, 260 lbs.)
- Starvation Dundas – British Tory politician Henry Dundas, who said in a 1775 debate that he was “afraid” that a bruited famine in the American colonies “would not be produced” by a trade-restricting bill
The Doubleday publishing company was founded in 1897 by Frank Nelson Doubleday, whose initials inevitably led Rudyard Kipling to dub him “effendi.” In Ogden Nash, Douglas M. Parker says this was “a nickname he would carry for his entire career.”
v. to squeak like a rat
v. to bark like a dog
v. to cry like a quail
v. to utter an elephant’s cry
n. the noise made by peacocks
“When did the world begin and how?”
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:
“What’s it all about and why?”
I asked a hog as he went by:
“Where will the whole thing end and when?”
I asked a duck, a goose, a hen:
And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.
— Robert Clairmont
- What time is it at the North Pole?
- The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
- After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
- 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
- PRICES: CRIPES!
- “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial
When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.
A clever Toronto lawyer was deep into a technical argument before the Supreme Court. His position was dependent upon a close reading of the legal text and turned on the letter of the law. Suddenly the chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, leaned forward and asked the counsel if his argument also worked in French. After all, the law is the law in both languages and a loophole in one tends to evaporate in the other. Only an argument of substance stands up. The lawyer had no idea what to reply.
— John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country, 2008
n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey
In 1505 Ferdinand Magellan sailed east to Malaysia, where he acquired a slave named Enrique who accompanied him on his subsequent westward circumnavigation of the globe. When that expedition reached the Philippines, Enrique escaped, and his fate is lost to history. That’s intriguing: If he managed to travel the few hundred remaining miles to his homeland, then he was the first person in history to circumnavigate the earth.
In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.
During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.
Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:
We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!
Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.
adj. producing ducks or geese
A deservedly rare word; it arises from the medieval belief that the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) grew underwater, emerging from barnacles that fell from trees. In his Topographia Hibernica of 1188, Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis wrote:
There are likewise here many birds called barnacles,(barnacle geese) which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first, gummy excrescenses from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in progress of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water. I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and, already formed.
Apparently the belief arose because these geese were never seen to nest like other birds; it was not yet understood that birds migrate.
In September 1905, printers in Ivan Sytin’s Moscow publishing house went on strike, demanding pay for punctuation marks. Discontented workers in other trades and other cities soon joined them in sympathy: bakers, railroad workers, lawyers, bankers, even the Imperial Ballet. Without the railroad, steel and textile mills were forced to shut down; soon nearly the entire adult population of Petrograd had ceased work. The general strike led Tsar Nicholas II to issue the October Manifesto, granting a constitution to Russia for the first time in its history. Thus, wrote Trotsky, “a strike which started over punctuation marks ended by felling absolutism.”
A somewhat related story, from David Kahn’s The Codebreakers: In June 1887 Philadelphia wool dealer Frank J. Primrose sent his agent William B. Toland west, ordering him to buy 50,000 pounds of wool in Kansas and Colorado and await further instructions. The two corresponded by telegram using phrase codes like these to shorten the messages.
On June 16 Primrose planned to send the message Yours of the 15th received; am exceedingly busy; I have bought all kinds, 500,000 pounds; perhaps we have sold half of it; wire when you do anything; send samples immediately, promptly of purchases. Shortened with phrase codes this read DESPOT AM EXCEEDINGLY BUSY BAY ALL KINDS QUO PERHAPS BRACKEN HALF OF IT MINCE MOMENT PROMPTLY OF PURCHASES.
Unfortunately, somewhere between Brookville and Ellis, Kansas, someone added a dot, converting BAY into BUY. Consequently Toland bought 300,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost more than $20,000 in settling with the sellers and sued Western Union, but the Supreme Court ruled against him on a technicality (he had declined to have his message read back to him). He collected only the cost of the telegram, $1.15.