In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:
rua torta lua morta tua porta.
Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.
“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.
“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”
n. a young girl
n. a coquettish manner or air
n. a chiding, reproof, or rebuke
adj. clad in purple
Applicants for radio announcing jobs in the 1920s had to a pass a diction test — New York Daily News radio critic Ben Gross gives this example in his 1954 book I Looked and I Listened:
“Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.”
In the 1940s Radio Central New York administered a cold reading to prospective radio personalities to assess their speaking ability — announcer Del Moore found it so entertaining that he gave it to his friend Jerry Lewis, who made it a staple of his annual muscular dystrophy telethon:
n. “Name for a devil said to collect fragments of words dropped, skipped, or mumbled in the recitation of divine service, and to carry them to hell, to be registered against the offender.” [OED]
adj. skilled in language
adj. fascinated by words
n. cunning in words; “verbal legerdemain”
n. limited knowledge of languages
In North Wales the Welsh word for ‘now’ is ‘rwan.’ In South Wales it is ‘rwan’ spelt backwards, viz., ‘nawr.’ It is conjectured that the first North Walian who made use of the word was standing on his head at the time, and that his pronunciation became general.
— The Cambrian, May 1901
n. an inability to act decisively
n. a coward
n. an eater of women
adj. eating men
n. one who eats babies
Here’s a special kind of genius: In 1997 Daniel Nussbaum rewrote Oedipus Rex using vanity license plates registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles:
ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.
OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.
JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”
SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.
SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.
NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.
UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.
YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!
The programming language Chef, devised by David Morgan-Mar, is designed to make programs look like cooking recipes. Variables are represented by “ingredients,” input comes from the “refrigerator,” output is sent to “baking dishes,” and so on. The language’s design principles state that “program recipes should not only generate valid output, but be easy to prepare and delicious,” but many of them fall short of that goal — one program for soufflé correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, but the recipe requires 32 zucchinis, 101 eggs, and 111 cups of oil to be combined in a bowl and served to a single person. Mike Worth set out to write a working program that could also be read as an actual recipe. Here’s what he came up with:
Hello World Cake with Chocolate sauce. This prints hello world, while being tastier than Hello World Souffle. The main chef makes a " world!" cake, which he puts in the baking dish. When he gets the sous chef to make the "Hello" chocolate sauce, it gets put into the baking dish and then the whole thing is printed when he refrigerates the sauce. When actually cooking, I'm interpreting the chocolate sauce baking dish to be separate from the cake one and Liquify to mean either melt or blend depending on context. Ingredients. 33 g chocolate chips 100 g butter 54 ml double cream 2 pinches baking powder 114 g sugar 111 ml beaten eggs 119 g flour 32 g cocoa powder 0 g cake mixture Cooking time: 25 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Method. Put chocolate chips into the mixing bowl. Put butter into the mixing bowl. Put sugar into the mixing bowl. Put beaten eggs into the mixing bowl. Put flour into the mixing bowl. Put baking powder into the mixing bowl. Put cocoa powder into the mixing bowl. Stir the mixing bowl for 1 minute. Combine double cream into the mixing bowl. Stir the mixing bowl for 4 minutes. Liquify the contents of the mixing bowl. Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish. bake the cake mixture. Wait until baked. Serve with chocolate sauce. chocolate sauce. Ingredients. 111 g sugar 108 ml hot water 108 ml heated double cream 101 g dark chocolate 72 g milk chocolate Method. Clean the mixing bowl. Put sugar into the mixing bowl. Put hot water into the mixing bowl. Put heated double cream into the mixing bowl. dissolve the sugar. agitate the sugar until dissolved. Liquify the dark chocolate. Put dark chocolate into the mixing bowl. Liquify the milk chocolate. Put milk chocolate into the mixing bowl. Liquify contents of the mixing bowl. Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Worth confirmed that this correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, and then he used the same instructions to bake a real cake. “It was surprisingly well received,” he writes. “The cake was slightly dry (although nowhere near as dry as cheap supermarket cakes), but this was complimented well by the sauce. My brother even asked me for the recipe!”
While we’re at it: Fibonacci Numbers With Caramel Sauce.
n. a rose fancier; one interested or engaged in the cultivation of roses
The rose cultivar “Whitfield” is named for English comedy actress June Whitfield.
She said, “There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as ‘superb for bedding, best up against a wall.'”
n. a person who obstinately adheres to old ways, particularly in language; an ignorant and bigoted opponent of reform (also a custom so adhered to)
- “Adam and Eve on a raft and wreck ’em”: two scrambled eggs on toast
- “Burn one, take it through the garden, and pin a rose on it”: hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion
- “Burn the British and draw one in the dark”: English muffin, toasted, with black coffee
- “Adam’s ale, hold the hail”: water, no ice
- “Give it shoes”: an order to go
- “Honeymoon salad”: “lettuce alone”
- “Life preservers”: doughnuts
- “Noah’s boy on bread”: ham sandwich
- “Put out the lights and cry”: liver and onions
- “Zeppelins in a fog”: sausages and mashed potatoes
In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “The common faults of American language are an ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.”
In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:
- bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
- balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
- balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
- bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.
“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”
In Syntactic Structures (1957), to illustrate the difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one, Noam Chomsky offered the expression Colorless green ideas sleep furiously as an example of a grammatical sentence that’s nonsense.
Naturally, some readers took this as a challenge — within months, students at Stanford had set up a competition to show that the expression could be understood as a meaningful sentence. Here’s one of the prizewinning entries:
It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
More entries are here. From David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, 2011.
adj. producing fever
The 1895 meeting of the Association of American Physicians saw a sobering report: Abraham Jacobi presented the case of a young man whose temperature had reached 149 degrees.
Nonsense, objected William Henry Welch. Such an observation was impossible. He recalled a similar report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 31, 1891) in which a Dr. Galbraith of Omaha had found a temperature of 171 degrees in a young woman.
“I do not undertake to explain in what way deception was practised, but there is no doubt in my mind that there was deception,” he said. “Such temperatures as those recorded in Dr. Galbraith’s and Dr. Jacobi’s cases are far above the temperature of heat rigor of mammalian muscle, and are destructive of the life of animal cells.”
Jacobi defended himself: Perhaps medicine simply hadn’t developed a theory to account for such things. But another physician told Welch that Galbraith’s case at least had a perfectly satisfactory explanation — another doctor had caught her in “the old-fashioned trick of heating the thermometer by a hot bottle in the bed.”
v. to help or aid
v. to come to the aid of
v. to remove obstructions
n. a person who helps or provides aid
“Suppose someone to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.”
— Andrew Ingraham, Swain School Lectures, 1903
n. judgment; a judicial sentence; penalty
William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.
Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.
n. a period of 24 consecutive hours
adj. lasting for or comprising a night and a day
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