In a Word

v. to attack or oppose with words

adj. expressing disapprobation

n. verbal contention

Joseph Pulitzer, of the New York World, who is referred to by Mr. Mencken as a great master of profanity in three languages, is credited with the intensified term ‘Don’t be so indegoddampendent.’ Certainly the phrase was common parlance on Park Row in my own repertorial days. Mr. Mencken adds the retort of managing editor Coates to that charge, ‘I’m under no obligoddamgation to do that and I won’t!’

— Burges Johnson, The Lost Art of Profanity, 1948

Overdone Bacon

Exponents of the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare have gone to sometimes elaborate lengths to find messages hidden in the plays. American physician Orville Ward Owen even invented a “cipher wheel” that could pass the texts under his eyes at various speeds as he looked for hidden meanings.

He didn’t find many supporters. Even Owen’s friend Frederick Mann wrote, “We are asked to believe that such peerless creations as Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet were not prime productions of the transcendent genius who wrote them, but were subsidiary devices which Bacon designed for the purpose of concealing the cipher therein.”

In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-speare, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence argues that the long word honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost is really an anagram:

These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.

“It surpasses the wit of man,” he wrote, to produce another sensible anagram from the long word, and he offered a hundred guineas to anyone who could do it. A Mr. Beevor of St. Albans rather promptly sent him this:

Be off, F. Bacon, the actor has entered and is playing.

Durning-Lawrence was taken aback, but he was a good sport: He paid Beevor his money.

(From John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 1996.)

In a Word

n. violent shaking

n. a severe shaking

A lion attacks David Livingstone, 1843:

Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produces a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.

The lion left him to attack his companions, who eventually dispatched it. Livingstone could never afterward raise his left arm above his shoulder; when asked by a group of sympathetic friends what he had been thinking during the attack, he said, “I was thinking, with a feeling of disinterested curiosity, which part of me the lion would eat first.”

A Loss for Words

In a 2013 study of tongue twisters, MIT psychologist Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel found that some volunteers who tried to say this phrase stopped talking altogether:

pad kid poured curd pulled cod

“If anyone can say this ten times quickly, they get a prize,” she said.

Another, from my notes:

She (to workman finishing bottom of flying boat hull) — Are you copper-bottoming ’em, my man?

He — No; I’m aluminuming ’em, mum.

Aerial Age Weekly, Oct. 4, 1915

Warm Words

Writing in American Speech in 1931, L.W. Merryweather predicted that “hell fills so large a part in the American vulgate that it will probably be worn out in a few years.” He proposed that “clerical circles should take it upon themselves, as a public duty, to invest some other theological term with a shuddering fearsomeness that will qualify it as a successor to hell, when the lamentable decease of the latter actually takes place.” He counted 14 usages:

  1. Hell as “the equivalent of negative adverbs,” or as an intensifier thereof, as in the hell you say and like hell I will.
  2. As a super-superlative, as in colder than hell.
  3. As an adverb of all work, as in run like hell and hate like hell.
  4. As an intensifier of questions, as in what the hell?, who the hell?, where the hell?, etc.
  5. As an intensifier of asseverations, as in hell, yes!
  6. As an intensifier of qualities, as in to be hell on and hell of a price.
  7. As an indicator of intensified experience, as in hell of a time, get the hell, and to play hell with.
  8. In a more or less literal sense, as in wouldn’t it be hell?, go to hell, the hell with, hell on wheels, hell to pay, like a snowball in hell, till hell freezes over, and to beat hell.
  9. As a synonym for uproar or turmoil, as in to raise hell, to give him hell, and hell is loose.
  10. As a verb, as in to hell around.
  11. As an adjective, as in a hellish hurry and hell-bent.
  12. In combination with other nouns, as in hell’s bells, hell and high water, hell and Maria, hell-raiser, hell-diver, hell-bender, and hell-to-breakfast.
  13. In derivatives, as in hellion, hell-cat and heller.
  14. As a simple expletive, as in Oh, hell!

Fourteen years later, in The American Language, H.L. Mencken wrote, “Fortunately, his fears have not been borne out by the event. Hell still flourishes in the Republic, in so far as profanity flourishes at all, and every one of the combinations and permutations of it that he listed remains in use.”

(L.W. Merryweather, “Hell in American Speech,” American Speech 6:6 [August 1931], 433-435.)

Language Arts

A replacement for the Turing test has been proposed. The original test, in which a computer program tries to fool a human judge into thinking it’s human during a five-minute text-only conversation, has been criticized because the central task of devising a false identity is not part of intelligence, and because some conversations may require relatively little intelligent reasoning.

The new test would be based on so-called Winograd schemas, devised by Stanford computer scientist Terry Winograd in 1972. Here’s the classic example:

The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.

If the word feared is used, to whom does they refer, the councilmen or the demonstrators? What if we change feared to advocated? You know the answers to these questions because you have a practical understanding of anxious councilmen. Computers find the task more difficult because it requires not only natural language processing and commonsense reasoning but a working knowledge of the real world.

“Our WS [Winograd schemas] challenge does not allow a subject to hide behind a smokescreen of verbal tricks, playfulness, or canned responses,” wrote University of Toronto computer scientist Hector Levesque in proposing the contest in 2014. “Assuming a subject is willing to take a WS test at all, much will be learned quite unambiguously about the subject in a few minutes.”

In July 2014 Nuance Communications announced that it will sponsor an annual Winograd Schema Challenge, with a prize of $25,000 for the computer that best matches human performance. The first competition will be held at the 2016 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, July 9-15 in New York City.

Here’s another possibility: Two Dartmouth professors have proposed a Turing Test in Creative Arts, in which “we ask if machines are capable of generating sonnets, short stories, or dance music that is indistinguishable from human-generated works, though perhaps not yet so advanced as Shakespeare, O. Henry or Daft Punk.” The results of that competition will be announced May 18 at Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Exposition.

(Thanks, Kristján and Sharon.)

In a Word

n. brevity, conciseness

First published in January 1981, NASA Reference Publication 1059, “Space Transportation System and Associated Payloads: Glossary, Acronyms, and Abbreviations,” is a list of “compressed identifiers of systems or structures felt too long and cumbersome to be christened in the normal fashion.”

Among the entries are BX, for box, FLG, for flag, and FLP, for flap.

In Words (1983), Paul Dickson writes, “One is hard-pressed to think of a situation in which an abbreviation that saves only one letter actually saves time and causes less confusion.”

In Other Words

The crews of American heavy bombers now stationed in the British Isles have fraternized, of course, with the personnel of R.A.F. It was a case of love at first sight — but both sides experienced a little difficulty at first in savvying each other’s lingo. One American aviator, for instance, cited this example of the R.A.F.’s version of the King’s English:

‘Three ropey types, all sprogs, pranged a cheeseye on bumps and circuits. One bought it; the other two sent for a burton. The station-master took a dim view and tore them off a strip. They’d taken along shagbat wofficer, who was browned off. The queen bee was hopping mad.’

It took some time for the American to translate this cryptic report. Roughly, this is what it meant:

‘Three unpopular individuals, all brand new pilot officers, crashed a workout airplane while practicing circuits and landings. One was killed; the other two were reprimanded severely. The station commander disapproved strongly and roundly berated them. They had taken along with them a somewhat plain WAAF officer, who was bored. The station’s WAAF commander was very angry.’

Queen’s University Journal, Sept. 29, 1944

The Vague Specific

In Collier’s in 1949, Richard B. Gehman identified a troubling feature of American language — the tendency to refer to specific things vaguely.

“Say, what about all those things in the front room?” his wife had asked him, supposing that he knew what she meant. “I didn’t,” Gehman wrote. “For all I knew, ‘those things’ could have been the furniture, books, rugs, magazines, lamps, or the remnants of a sandwich I’d been eating.”

Some more examples:

  • “Here,” my wife said, “you can take these. … Put them with those things behind the others.”
  • “Remember the girl from the place with the stuff? Well, she’s here.”
  • “The men came today.” (Gehman tried asking, “What did you tell them?”, but she only answered, “I told them to go ahead.”)
  • “Do you remember that time we were at the shore, and it rained?”
  • “When was it that we had the Coes over?”
  • “The woman’s here for the money.”
  • “What was the name of that couple we met the time we went to the Zeamers’?”
  • “What’s the name of that fellow who drives the truck?”

A neighbor appeared at Gehman’s door one day and asked his help in repairing a washing machine — his wife had said that the thing on its side was acting funny. “He sighed, and asked if I had anything to drink in the house.”