In a Word

n. fear of (or worry about) hotels

Art historian Bernard Berenson offered this word in his 1952 memoir Rumour and Reflection:

I invented it long ago to designate the sinking feeling that in my travels often overcame me: of fear lest the inn or hotel at which we were to lodge would be sordid, would not let me have the promised apartment; that my bedroom would have the wrong proportions, mulling or flattening me out of my normal shape and squeezing me out of my own way of breathing; that the lights would be glaring and no reading lamp by my bed; that there would be sharp or clattering sounds outside, or bad smells without or within. Motoring in the Vendee or Poitou, in Spain or Greece as evening darkened, tired or even exhausted, I would wish the destination farther and farther away, for fear of what I should find when I reached it.

When William Tazewell mentioned the word in a 1989 travel article in the New York Times, reader Louis Jay Herman wrote to add “a few more suggested contributions to the Hellenizing of the travel language”:

n. fear of having to cope with a foreign doctor

n. fear of finding yourself in a foreign hospital

n. fear of foreign pickpockets

n. fear of high prices

And cacohydrophobia, loosely translatable as Can I drink what comes out of the tap in this joint?

In a Word

n. an entity whose presence is unverifiable because it has no physical effects

A.J. Ayer coined this word spontaneously while describing his “principle of verification” during a 1949 broadcast:

Suppose I say, ‘There’s a drogulus over there’ and you say … ‘What’s a drogulus?’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I can’t describe what a drogulus is, because it is not the sort of thing you can see or touch. It has no physical effects of any kind, but it’s a disembodied being.’ And you say, ‘Well, how am I to tell if it’s there or not?’ and I say, ‘There’s no way of telling. Everything’s just the same if it’s there or it’s not there. But the fact is it’s there. There’s a drogulus there standing just behind you.’ Does that make sense?

“Talk about obscure words!” writes lexicographer Norman Schur. “Have we finally met the man who wasn’t there?”

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.

— Hughes Mearns

Curiously, Ayer himself seems to have confirmed at least one sighting. In 1959, Lionel Penrose wrote in New Biology, “I had difficulty in finding a suitable name for the activated complexes produced in [certain] experiments. On showing one of them to Professor A. J. Ayer, I inquired whether it perhaps might be a ‘drogulus’ … He replied that it was undoubtedly a ‘drogulus’.”

United Nations

Writer Harry Mathews experimented with a bilingual vocabulary he called “legal franglais.” He compiled 425 words that are spelled identically in French and English (aside from accents and capitals). Examples:

Mets attend the sale
Mets attend thé salé

If rogue ignore genes, bride pays
If rogue ignore gênes, bride pays

As mute tint regains miens, touts allege bath
As muté tint regains miens, tout s’allège, bath

If emu ignore bonds, mire jars rogue
If ému ignore bonds, mire jars rogue

Roman delusive gent fit crisper rayon
Roman d’élusive gent fit crisper rayon

Because, ideally, the words should have no meaning in common, it’s hard to find reasonable settings for these utterances. Ian Monk proposed this example:

Il ne faut pas rôtir les oies mais plutôt les mâles de l’espèce, et en grande quantitê.

When it was Fred’s round, he told the landlord to grab their pint glasses and serve him and his three companions forthwith.


One can attempt the same thing preserving sound rather than spelling. In Alphonse Allais’ verse, entire lines are pronounced the same:

Par le bois du djinn, où s’entasse de l’effroi,
Parle, bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.

And, combining these two ideas, one can compose a sentence that looks like French but sounds like English. Stopping before a monkey’s cage, François Le Lionnais exclaimed, “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver!”


“2 Poems,” by Tom King, from The Oulipo Compendium. I don’t know why these are so charming, but they are:

This Is Jist Ti Siy

by Tim King

I hivi iitin
thi plims
thit wiri in
thi icibix
ind which
yii wiri pribibli
fir briikfist
Firgivi mi
thiy wiri diliciiis
si swiit
ind si cild

Thos Os Jost To Soy

by Tom Kong

O hovo ooton
tho ploms
thot woro on
tho ocobox
ond whoch
yoo woro proboblo
for brookfost
Forgovo mo
thoy woro dolocooos
so swoot
ond so cold

The Prisoner’s Restriction

A prisoner has a limited supply of paper and wants to conserve space by avoiding any letter that extends above or below the line (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, or y). How far can he get?

Pretty far, it turns out. Writer Ian Monk came up with this:

a russian con’s economic missive

we were once seven con men, we are now seven cons. as communism was over we saw easier success in american consumerism, i.e. crime. in a moscow inn, we swore: — seven is one, so one is seven … soon we came across a scam. our main man wove us a nice wee earner: — we own a zinc mine. since our russian economic crisis came in, our income’s never risen. we can cram ice in our mine’s veins, raise rumours re our ice mine’s immense resources, con morons we are mere zeros. as soon as career men see our ice, we win ’em over. once we’ve won ’em over, we receive numerous ecus or euros. as soon as we’ve our monies, we serve ’em arsenic in wine. we can even recommence on numerous occasions. … our scam was a success. our asses never saw sense. we were euros in. we saw our main man serve our vicious wine mix … a near miss .. our arsenic was mere mouse venom. some asses were survivors: — summon a coroner, someone swore. — or a nurse. — or some rozzers. so we ran. we swam across a river. as soon as no one was near us, we wove our monies in wee canvas cases we wore in our arses. we ran on. in vain … someone saw us on vanavara’s main avenue. a commissioner, nine rozzers, seven airmen, six cia men overcame us. we were sworn in. we are now in moscow in irons in room nine. as soon as someone receives or sos, come … run … save us … since no one’s ever come across our economies, our ransoms are even now in our arses.

Good Boy

In 1990 François Caradec invented “poems for dogs.” A pet’s name is hidden phonetically in each verse; like a dog whistle, it goes unnoticed by the master but makes the dog sit up. Here’s a sample written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel Flush:

My mistress never slights me
When taking outdoor tea.
She brings sweet cake
For her sweet sake,
Rough, luscious bones for me.

Flush was already a bit of a literary celebrity — Barrett Browning composed two poems about him, and Virginia Woolf made him the hero of a whole novel, Flush: A Biography, in 1933. In 1843, after Flush was briefly held for ransom, his mistress wrote, “Oh, and if you had seen him, when he came home & threw himself into my arms … in that dumb inarticulate ecstasy which is so affecting.”