Men of Letters

The Strand set itself a novel challenge — to create a complete alphabet using human figures. It engaged an acrobatic trio known as the Three Delevines and set to work in a studio in Plymouth:

http://books.google.com/books?id=8ukvAAAAMAAJ

“We would venture to say that each and every one of these letters and figures will well repay careful individual study. Each one had first of all to be thought out and designed, then built up in a way which satisfied the author, and finally ‘snapped’ by our artist, for the slightest movement of a head or limb altered the physiognomy of a letter in a surprising way.”

“When the human components had so grouped themselves that the result really looked, even ‘in the flesh,’ like the letter it was supposed to represent, then the author gave the word ‘Go,’ and immediately afterwards, with a sigh of relief, the Three Delevines ‘stood at ease,’ wondering how on earth the next on the list was going to be formed. Neither time nor trouble was spared in the preparation of this most unique of alphabets. Observe that, while we might have inverted the M to form a W, we did not do so; and we think everyone will agree that the last-named letter was well worthy of being designed separately.”

http://books.google.com/books?id=8ukvAAAAMAAJ

“Perhaps some enterprising publisher would like to publish a whole novel in ‘living’ type. Such a work might, or might not, command a huge sale; but, at least, there can be no two opinions about the human interest of the work.”

Word Ladders

On Christmas Day 1877, assailed by two young ladies with “nothing to do,” Lewis Carroll invented a new “form of verbal torture”: Presented with two words of the same length, the solver must convert one to the other by changing a single letter at a time, with each step producing a valid English word. For example, HEAD can be converted to TAIL in five steps:

HEAD
HEAL
TEAL
TELL
TALL
TAIL

Carroll called the new pastime Doublets and published it in Vanity Fair, which hailed it as “so entirely novel and withal so interesting, that … the Doublets may be expected to become an occupation to the full as amusing as the guessing of the Double Acrostics has already proved.”

In some puzzles the number of steps is specified. In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the narrator describes a friend who was addicted to “word golf.” “He would interrupt the flow of a prismatic conversation to indulge in this particular pastime, and naturally it would have been boorish of me to refuse playing with him. Some of my records are: HATE-LOVE in three, LASS-MALE in four, and LIVE-DEAD in five (with LEND in the middle).” I’ve been able to solve the first two of these fairly easily, but not the last.

But even without such a constraint, some transformations require a surprising number of steps. Carroll found that 10 were required to turn BLUE into PINK, and in 1968 wordplay expert Dmitri Borgmann declared himself unable to convert ABOVE into BELOW at all.

In a computer study of 5,757 five-letter English words, Donald Knuth found that most could be connected to one another, but 671 could not. One of these, fittingly, was ALOOF. In the wider English language, what proportion of words are “aloof,” words that cannot be connected to any of their fellows? Is ALOOF itself one of these?

In 1917 Sam Loyd and Thomas Edison made this short, which plays with similar ideas. The goat at the end was animated by Willis O’Brien, who would bring King Kong to life 16 years later:

Roll Call

In 1938, University of North Carolina folklorist Arthur Palmer Hudson published a collection of unusual African-American names, most gathered through personal interviews but others “unimpeachably attested” by state bureaus of vital statistics:

Comer Mercantile Company
Castor Oil
Morphine
Dr. Root Beer
Oleomargarine
Artificial Flowers
Elevator
Dill Pickle
League of Nations
Toledo Ohio
Positive Wasserman (after a hospital wrist tag)
Jesus Hoover Christ (“the family was a beneficiary of the Red Cross when Hoover was director”)
Jesse James Outlaw
James All Virtuous
Sandy Alexander Soap Fish and Tobacco Box
Susan Anna Banana Green Doosenberry Watson
Rosa Belle Locust Hill North Carolina Beauty Spot Evans
Frank Harrison President of the United States Eats His Lasses Candy and Swings on Every Gate Williams
Pneumonia and Neuralgia (twins)
Flat Foot Floogie
State Normal and Industrial College (“Snic”)
No Parking
Lake Erie Banks
Cleopatra Blue

In the 1850s, a Stanly County, N.C., slave was named Sunday May Ninth “to guarantee the bearer’s remembrance of his birthday.” “This name proved useful to the ex-slave in establishing his status with reference to a monetary claim.”

Hudson seems to have been enchanted by unusual names generally — among the UNC alumni he found a white student named Shively Dewilder Accus Baccus Dulcido.

(Arthur Palmer Hudson, “Some Curious Negro Names,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 2:4, December 1938, pp. 179-193.)

A Latin Spoonerism

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schopenhauer.jpg

Arthur Schopenhauer was so ill-tempered that he once assaulted an elderly seamstress for talking outside his door.

A court ordered him to pay her 15 thalers every quarter for the rest of her life.

When she finally passed away 20 years later, he wrote in his account book Obit anus, abit onus — Latin for “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted.”

Eh?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Nelson.jpg

As the Battle of Trafalgar commenced, Horatio Nelson famously signalled the English fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Actually that message arose only due to a last-minute conference on the flagship, as signal officer John Pasco recalled after the battle:

His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, ‘Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,’ and he added, ‘You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.’ I replied, ‘If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the word expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.’ His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’

The days of such clear language are over — in an August 1939 letter to the London Times, A.P. Herbert wrote:

Alas, the strong silent Services have been corrupted, too. If Nelson had to repeat his famous signal today it would probably run thus:–

England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issue and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation-groups.

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Houdini_and_Lincoln.jpg

transpicuous
adj. transparent

In 1922, magician Harry Price published “Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, showing that so-called “spirit photographs” could be created using simple double exposures. In support of the exposé, Harry Houdini had himself photographed with Abraham Lincoln.