Language

Thanks for Nothing

Gordon Macdonald was the last British governor of Newfoundland. Despite the island’s fiercely independent nature, he openly campaigned for it to become part of Canada. In 1949 he succeeded, and two days before he returned to England, the Evening Telegram published a congratulatory poem:

The prayers of countless thousands sent
Heavenwards to speed thy safe return,
Ennobled as thou art with duty well performed,
Bringing peace, security and joy
Among the peoples of this New Found Land.
So saddened and depressed until your presence
Taught us discern and help decide what’s best for
All on whom fortune had not smiled.
Remember if you will the kindness and the love
Devotion and the respect that we the people have for Thee

— Farewell!

It was several weeks before the editors noticed it was an acrostic — read the first letter of each line.

Self-Contradicting Words

Words whose meanings contradict one another:

  • BILL (“monetary note” and “statement of debt”)
  • BUCKLE (“to secure” and “to collapse”)
  • CLEAVE (“to separate” and “to bring together”)
  • DOWNHILL (“progressively easier” and “progressively worse”)
  • DUST (“to add dust” and “to remove dust”)
  • FAST (“quick-moving” and “immobile”)
  • GARNISH (“to add to” and “to take from”)
  • MODEL (“archetype” and “copy”)
  • OVERSIGHT (“attention” and “inattention”)
  • PEER (“noble” and “person of equal rank”)
  • PUZZLE (“to pose a problem” and “to try to solve a problem”)
  • SANCTION (“to permit” and “to restrict”)

And TABLE means both “to present for consideration” and “to remove from consideration.”

Could You Repeat That?

This is a grammatically valid English sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

It was discovered/invented in 1972 by University of Buffalo linguist William J. Rapaport. It means “Buffalo from the city of Buffalo that are intimidated by other buffalo from the city of Buffalo themselves intimidate a third group of buffalo, also from Buffalo.”

Is that clear? Be glad you’re not in the Netherlands, where Als In Bergen, bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen means “If in Bergen, heaps of mountains salvage heaps of mountains, then heaps of mountains salvage heaps of mountains.”

In a Word

hieromachy
a fight or quarrel between priests

August Reading

A capitonym is a word that changes meaning when it’s capitalized:

A herb store owner, name of Herb,
Moved to a rainier Mount Rainier.
It would have been so nice in Nice,
And even tangier in Tangier.

Isograms

An isogram is a word in which no letter is repeated:

  • METALWORKINGS
  • LEXICOGRAPHY
  • MALNOURISHED
  • THUNDERCLAPS
  • UNFORGIVABLE
  • AMBIDEXTROUSLY
  • UNCOPYRIGHTABLE

Theoretically the limit is 26 letters, but that’s an Everest that no one has scaled. Dmitri Borgmann has conquered some lesser peaks with THUMBSCREW-JAPINGLY (18 letters, “as if mocking a thumbscrew”) and PUBVEXINGFJORD-SCHMALTZY (23 letters, “as if in the manner of the extreme sentimentalism generated in some individuals by the sight of a majestic fjord, which sentimentalism is annoying to the clientele of an English inn”). Maybe what we lack is imagination.

Rechtub Klat

It’s not only 007 who communicates in code. Butchers in Australia speak a secret language called Rechtub Klat (“butcher talk”), in which words are pronounced backward.

Why should butchers need a secret language? So they can talk about the customers:

  • Kool, toh lrig = Look, hot girl
  • Doog tsub = Good bust
  • Doog esra = Good arse
  • On doog cuf ecaf = No-good fuckface

Keep your ears open.

Scrabble Heaven

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The most frequently used letters of the English alphabet, in order, are ETAOIN SHRDLU.

They can be rearranged to spell SOUTH IRELAND.

In a Word

griffade
sudden seizure with the claws

Robble Robble Robble

In Brazil, the Hamburglar is known as Papaburguer.

In a Word

whiskerine
n. beard-growing contest

Mindsight Fablelore

Here’s what English might look like if the Norman Conquest had failed:

To be, or not to be: that is the ask-thing:
is’t higher-thinking in the brain to bear
the slings and arrows of outrageous dooming
or to take weapons ‘gainst a sea of bothers
and by againstwork end them?

Author Paul Jennings composed this excerpt in 1966, 900 years after 1066. It uses words with Germanic roots in place of those with Greek, Latin, and Romance ones, which came to England with William the Conqueror. Jennings calls it “Anglish.”

In a Word

quisby
n. an idler

“Does a One-Legged Duck Swim in Circles?”

Recent winners of the Foot in Mouth Award, presented each year by the British Plain English Campaign for “a baffling quote by a public figure”:

  • 2005: Welsh politician Rhodri Morgan on the police: “The only thing which isn’t up for grabs is no change, and I think it’s fair to say it’s all to play for, except for no change.”
  • 2004: M.P. Boris Johnson on the television program Have I Got News For You: “I could not fail to disagree with you less.”
  • 2003: U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns–the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
  • 2002: Actor Richard Gere: “I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I’d think, ‘No, actually I am a giraffe.'”
  • 2001: English artist Tracey Emin: “When it comes to words, I have a uniqueness that I find almost impossible in terms of art–and it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique.”
  • 2000: Alicia Silverstone, quoted in the Sunday Telegraph: “I think that [the film] Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”

In a Word

xanthocomic
adj. yellow-haired

Noah’s Headache

This is a jaglion, a cross between a jaguar and a lion. Big cats interbreed pretty easily, which makes for some confusing nomenclature.

Cross a lion with a tiger and you get a liger or a tigon, depending on the parents’ sexes. Cross a leopard with a jaguar and you’ll get a jagulep or a lepjag. And if you cross a puma with a leopard you get the magnificently named pumapard.

You can even make hybrids of your hybrids. Cross your new jagulep with a lion you’ll have a lijagulep. Keep going and eventually you can make liards, jaguatigers, doglas, leotigs, tigards, tiguars, and liguars.

And theoretically, if you crossed a jaguar with a tigress … you’d get a jagger. Hmmm.

In a Word

quacksalver
n. one who falsely pretends to knowledge of medicine

In a Word

borborygmus
n. rumbling noise in the intestines

In a Word

cuniculous
adj. full of rabbits

In a Word

estival
adj. of, like or pertaining to summer

The Quick Brown Fox …

In 1984, British engineer Lee Sallows built a dedicated computer to compose a self-enumerating pangram — a sentence that inventories its own letters. It succeeded:

This pangram contains four a’s, one b, two c’s, one d, thirty e’s, six f’s, five g’s, seven h’s, eleven i’s, one j, one k, two l’s, two m’s, eighteen n’s, fifteen o’s, two p’s, one q, five r’s, twenty-seven s’s, eighteen t’s, two u’s, seven v’s, eight w’s, two x’s, three y’s, & one z.

Apropos

CLINT EASTWOOD is an anagram for OLD WEST ACTION.

“Errors of the Press.”

“The following paragraphs will shew how completely the sense is altered by the omission of a single letter of the word in Italics”:

  • “The conflict was dreadful, and the enemy was repulsed with considerable laughter.”
  • “Robert Jones was yesterday brought before the sitting Magistrate, on a charge of having spoken reason at the Barleymow public-house.”
  • “In consequence of the numerous accidents occasioned by skaiting on the Serpentine River, measures are taking to put a top to it.”
  • “When Miss Leserve, late of Covent Garden Theatre, visited the ‘Hecla,’ she was politely drawn up the ship’s side by means of a hair.”
  • “At the Guildhall dinner, none of the poultry was eatable except the owls.”
  • “A gentleman was yesterday brought up to answer a charge of having eaten a hackney-coachman for having demanded more than his fare; and another was accused of having stolen a small ox out of the Bath mail; the stolen property was found in his waistcoat pocket.”

Salem Register, 1827, quoted in The Olden Time Series, Vol. 6: Literary Curiosities: Gleanings Chiefly from Old Newspapers of Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, 1886

Trivium

The longest English word of one syllable is squirreled.