In 1881 Puck published four faces assembled from printing characters and announced that its compositors intended to surpass “all the cartoonists that ever walked.”
Six years later, in an essay entitled “For Brevity and Clarity,” Ambrose Bierce offered a character to make irony clear in written text:
In April 1969, New York Times interviewer Alden Whitman asked Vladimir Nabokov, “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?” He answered, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”
n. the reverse of goodness; unkindness
n. harm, damage; evil
adj. incapable of repentance
adj. incapable of weeping
n. a list of written stupidities
Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:
- He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
- Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
- Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
- Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
- With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
- Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
- So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
- Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
- O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
- The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
- Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
- Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
- Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
- Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)
In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”
Bilingual palindromes, offered by Luc Étienne in Palindromes Bilingues, 1984:
- Mon Eva rêve ton image, bidet! = Ted, I beg, am I not ever a venom?
- Untrodden russet! = T’es sûr, Ned dort nu?
- Sir, I ate merely on it. = Tino, y le remet à Iris.
- Isadora rêve = Ever a rod as I?
- Ton minet t’adora = A rod, at ten, I’m not!
- Crop, editor, not any Bob = Bob, y n’a ton rôti de porc!
I offer you a sentence which does not indeed read backward and forward the same, but reads forward in English and backward in Latin,– making sense, it seems to me, both ways; granting that it is hardly classical Latin.
Anger? ‘t is safe never. Bar it! Use love!
Evoles ut ira breve nefas sit; regna!
Which being freely translated, may mean,
Rise up, in order that your anger may be but a brief madness; control it!
— John Townsend Trowbridge, ed., Our Young Folks, 1866
This poem takes a pretty dark view of marriage — unless you read only the alternate lines:
That man must lead a happy life
Who’s free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.
Adam could find no solid peace
When Eve was given for a mate;
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.
In all the female race appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
In woman never did reside.
What tongue is able to unfold
The failings that in woman dwell;
The worths in woman we behold
Are almost imperceptible.
Confusion take the man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness,
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of earthly blessedness.
— W.S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
n. a midday rest
Some favorite words of Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall, from his Limits of Language (2006):
- klunen (Dutch): “to walk or run overland with skates on (usually from one body of frozen water to another)”
- aɣone (Kuot): “to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle”
- fringsen (German): “to steal coal from railway wagons or potatoes from fields in order to survive”
- knedlikový (Czech): “rather partial to dumplings”
- qamigartuk (Yup’ik): “he goes seal-hunting with a small sled and kayak in the spring”
- baleŋga (Chavacano): “excessive swinging of arms while walking”
- kallsup (Swedish): “a gulp of water that a bather accidentally inhales”
- googly (English): “(of an off-breaking cricket ball) disguised by the bowler with an apparent leg-break action”
Gunwinggu, spoken in northwestern Australia, uses different verbs to describe the hopping of a black wallaroo (Macropus bernardus) (kamurlbardme), the hopping of an agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) (kalurlhlurme), the hopping of a male antilopine wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) (kamawudme), and the hopping of a female antilopine wallaroo (kadjalwahme).
adj. having a mane
Oliver Herford said that at the New York Public Library one “learned the meaning of the expression ‘reading between the lions.'”
n. the act of making or becoming progressively more miserable
adj. bringing sorrow, mournful, gloomy
n. a hoarder of books
In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:
This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.
n. food, provisions
n. the art or science of cookery
n. an expert or skilled eater
Ernst Havlik’s (1981) Lexikon der Onomatopoien is an entire dictionary consisting only of comic strip sound effects. It contains an introductory analysis, 2222 onomatopoeic items, and 111 illustrations. The section on kissing, for instance, contains glork, schmatz, schuic, shluk, smack, smurp and shmersh — quite a poetic collection in itself. More unexpected are woin and töff, both of which are intended to represent the sound of a car horn. A breaking car apparently goes tata in at least one source, and from a ‘scientific laboratory,’ one gets to hear foodle, grink, and sqwunk. Perhaps even more interesting are the sounds floop, flop and flomp, which represent the sound of a bra being taken off. Anyone prejudiced against the genre as such, may see it as a confirmation that the sections on ‘violence’ take up 17 pages, while that devoted to ‘thinking’ consists of a mere five lines.
— Mikael Parkvall, Limits of Language, 2006
Eugene Ulrich offered this paragraph in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. What’s unusual about it?
The problem with antisocial sorority girls is men and pals. Such girls may wish for neurotic men to go with them for laughs. But male pals lend ornament, worn for handy visual flair. So the pals it is; they form an authentic proxy when visible, and prudish girls may also dispel their own rigid neuroticism with such chaps.
adj. living in exile
Homeless, exiled, I climb Sin-Ping tower.
It is late on in the dying year,
The sun is declining in the sky
And the dark river runs gloomy and slow.
A cloud moves across the forests on the mountain;
Wild geese fly off down the river.
Up here I can see for ten thousand miles,
But I do not see the end of my sorrows.
— Li Po, banished from the Chinese capital, circa 757
SWIMS is rotationally symmetric — it reads the same right side up and upside down.
Walter Penney of Greenbelt, Md., offered this poser in the August 1969 issue of Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Below are five groups of English words. Each group appears also in a foreign language. What are the languages?
- aloud, angel, hark, inner, lover, room, taken, wig
- alas, atlas, into, manner, pore, tie, vain, valve
- ail, ballot, enter, four, lent, lit, mire, taller
- banjo, chosen, hippo, pure, same, share, tempo, tendon
- ago, cur, dare, fur, limes, mane, probe, undo
n. a fight between an elephant and a whale
Anthony R. Wagner uses this word in his foreword to G.D. Squibb’s 1959 book The High Court of Chivalry to describe the controversy in early 20th-century England over the right to bear arms:
I therefore soon found myself studying the whole subject with close attention and in time I came to two conclusions. The first was that the original controversy had been an elephantocetomachia, a fight between an elephant and a whale, incapable of decision because the adversaries lived in different elements and could not come to grips. Oswald Barron, a historian, was trying to settle a legal question by reciting history. [A.C.] Fox-Davies, a lawyer, hoped to settle history by quoting law.
Wagner doesn’t claim to have coined it, but I can’t find it anywhere else except in quotations of that passage. That’s a shame — it’s a useful word.
The word bid has vertical symmetry in lowercase and horizontal symmetry in uppercase.
v. to represent by a picture or sculpture
adj. armed with a noose
adj. hanging from a rope
adj. pertaining to the gallows
On Feb. 23, 1885, convicted murderer John Lee of Devon was brought to the scaffold and positioned on the trapdoor. The noose was fitted around his neck, and executioner James Berry pulled the lever.
Two warders tried to force the trapdoor to open under Lee, but they failed. They removed the condemned man and tested the door, and it worked. So they put Lee in position again, and again Berry pulled the lever.
Again nothing happened.
Exasperated, the warders again put Lee aside and set to work on the door, this time with hatchets. When they were satisfied, they returned him to the scaffold, and Berry pulled the lever a third time.
So the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment.
adj. existing, living, or carried out underneath snow
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.
- EMBARGO spelled backward is O GRAB ME.
- The numbers on a roulette wheel add to 666.
- The fourth root of 2143/22 is nearly pi (3.14159265258).
- “A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.” — Aeschylus
Six countries have names that begin with the letter K, and each has a different vowel as the second letter: Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan.
In composing a state map of New York in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company wanted to be sure that competing mapmakers would not simply copy its work. So the company’s founder, Otto G. Lindberg, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, scrambled their initials and placed the fictional town of Agloe at the intersection of two dirt roads in the Catskills north of Roscoe.
Several years later, they discovered Agloe on a Rand McNally map and confronted their competitor. But Rand was innocent: It had got the name from the county government, which had taken it from the Agloe General Store, which now occupied the intersection. The store had taken the name from a map by Esso, which had (apparently) copied it from Lindberg’s map. Agloe had somehow clambered from imagination into reality.
Similarly, in 2001 editors placed a fake word in the New Oxford American Dictionary as a trap for other lexicographers who might steal their material. Fittingly, the word was esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at Dictionary.com (it’s since been taken down), citing Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary.
And as with Agloe, the invention has taken on a life of its own. NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who coined esquivalience, told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”