A Small Start


Europe once had a state whose official language was Esperanto. When boundaries were redrawn after the Napoleonic wars, a dispute arose regarding the border between Prussia and the Netherlands, and a sliver of 3.44 square kilometers became a no man’s land known as Neutral Moresnet. In 1908, German immigrant Wilhelm Molly proposed making the territory into the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state. They rechristened the area Amikejo (literally, “friend-place”) and adopted a national anthem, and the International Esperantist Congress even decided to move its headquarters from The Hague to the new “world capital” of the international language.

But it wasn’t to be. Germany overran the tiny territory as World War I broke out, and it was formally annexed by Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles.

Somewhat related: In 2004 deaf journalist Marvin T. Miller proposed building the “world’s first sign language town,” a community whose common languages would be American Sign Language and written English. Miller chose a site in South Dakota and named it Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, who co-founded the country’s first school for the deaf. But the project appears to have stalled due to lack of funding.

“The Poet’s Reply”

What’s unusual about this poem, composed by James Rambo for Word Ways, May 1977?

Use fulsome howl or direst word in galling us; toil over a shoddy ode?
Listen, dressed in gyves, tiger, allies fall, ensnared in timeless eras, mentally in agony, essays in gall.
Outwit Hades, ignore verses, you real lover? Come!

Useful somehow, Lord, I rest, wording all in gusto I love.
Rash odd yodel is tendresse; dingy vestige rallies fallen snared.
In time, lesser as men tally, I nag on — yes, say, sing all out — with a design.
O reverses, you’re all overcome!

The two stanzas are spelled identically.

A Loss for Words

What’s the worst dictionary in the world? It appears to be Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language: Handy School and Office Edition, published in the late 1970s by Book-Craft Guild, Inc. While on vacation in 1994, Christopher McManus of Silver Spring, Md., had to rely on HSOE to arbitrate word games, and he quickly discovered that it had no entry for cow, die, dig, era, get, hat, law, let, may, new, now, off, old, one, run, see, set, top, two, who, why, or you. In fact, of 1,850 common three- and four-letter words that McManus found listed unanimously in seven other dictionaries, HSOE omitted fully 46 percent. At the same time it included such erudite entries as dhow, gyve, pteridophyte, and quipu.

“To find took, one must know to look under take,” McManus writes, “and disc is listed as a variant only at the disk entry.” The volume includes a captioned illustration of a raft, but no entry for raft!

It’s not clear what happened, but McManus suspects that the book was assembled from blocks of typeset copy, about 40 percent of which disappeared during publication. “Since the erstwhile publisher, Book-Craft Guild, is not listed in current publishing directories, definitive explanations are not available.”

(Christopher McManus, “The World’s Worst Dictionary,” Word Ways, February 1995)

(Note that this doesn’t indict all Webster’s dictionaries — most invoke Webster’s name only for marketing purposes.)


In 2004 wind energy company Gamesa Energy UK announced plans to erect a 40-meter test mast in a field outside the Welsh village of Llanfynydd.

The villagers value their seclusion, and the area is home to three endangered bird species — the red kite, the curlew, and the skylark.

So they changed the town’s name to Llanhyfryddawelllehynafolybarcudprindanfygythiadtrienusyrhafnauole, which means “a quiet beautiful village, an historic place with rare kite under threat from wretched blades.”

At 66 letters, this surpassed Anglesey’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch as the longest place name in the United Kingdom, attracting some media attention and free publicity for the village’s battle against the energy company.

The change lasted only a week, but it served its purpose. “It might seem that changing the name of the village for the week is a bit of a joke, but we could not be more serious,” villager Meirion Rees told the BBC. “If our community is to be overshadowed it might as well change its name and its identity.”

In a Word

adj. fearless

There was a young fellow named Weir
Who hadn’t an atom of fear;
He indulged a desire
To touch a live wire,
(‘Most any old line will do here!)

— Anonymous, quoted in Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925

“Owen Kerr vs. Owen Kerr”

From the Western Jurist, November 1878:

Two cousins, each claiming that the other was indebted to him, were in court litigating the matter. During the trial, a member of the bar, possessing a somewhat poetical turn of mind, composed the following lines on the merits of the case:

If the strife in this case is extremely perverse,
‘Tis because ’tis between a couple of ‘Kerrs.’
Each Owen is owin’ — but here lies the bother;
To determine which Owen is owin’ the other.
Each Owen swears Owen to Owen is owin’,
And each alike certain, dog-matic, and knowin’;
But ’tis hoped that the jury will not be deterred
From finding which ‘Kerr’ the true debt has incurred;
Thus settling which Owen by owin’ has failed,
And that justice ‘twixt curs has not been curtailed.

Gray Area


A legal conundrum from Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope’s Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741): Sir John Swale bequeaths to Matthew Stradling “all my black and white Horses.” Sir John has six black, six white, and six pied horses. Should Stradling get the pied ones?

On the one hand, “Whatever is Black and White, is Pyed, and whatever is Pyed is Black and White; ergo, Black and White is Pyed, and, vice versa, Pyed is Black and White.”

On the other, “A pyed Horse is not a white Horse, neither is a pyed a black Horse; how then can pyed Horses come under the Words of black and white Horses?”

Perhaps this will help — a proof that all horses are the same color, condensed from Joel E. Cohen, “On the Nature of Mathematical Proofs,” Opus, May 1961, from A Random Walk in Science:

It is obvious that one horse is the same colour. Let us assume the proposition P(k) that k horses are the same colour and use this to imply that k+1 horses are the same colour. Given the set of k+1 horses, we remove one horse; then the remaining k horses are the same colour, by hypothesis. We remove another horse and replace the first; the k horses, by hypothesis, are again the same colour. We repeat this until by exhaustion the k+1 sets of k horses have each been shown to be the same colour. It follows then that since every horse is the same colour as every other horse, P(k) entails P(k+1). But since we have shown P(1) to be true, P is true for all succeeding values of k, that is, all horses are the same colour.