Language

In a Word

dactylconomy
n. the art of counting on one’s fingers

Holiday for Vowels

“In an old church in Westchester county, N.Y., the following consonants are written beside the altar, under the Ten Commandments. What vowel is to be placed between them, to make sense and rhyme of the couplet?”

P.R.S.V.R.Y.P.R.F.C.T.M.N.
V.R.K.P.T.H.S.P.R.C.P.T.S.T.N

— Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1860

Click for Answer

A Dead Language Revived

Jonathan Swift liked to compose “Latin puns” — stanzas of nonsense Latin that would render English when spoken:

Mollis abuti,
Has an acuti,
No lasso finis,
Molli divinis.
Omi de armis tres,
Cantu disco ver
Meas alo ver?

Read that aloud and you’ll hear:

Moll is a beauty,
Has an acute eye,
No lass so fine is,
Molly divine is.
O my dear mistress,
I’m in a distress,
Can’t you discover
Me as a lover?

In a later letter, Swift wrote:

I ritu a verse o na molli o mi ne,
Asta lassa me pole, a l(ae)dis o fine;
I ne ver neu a niso ne at in mi ni is;
A manat a glans ora sito fer diis.
De armo lis abuti hos face an hos nos is
As fer a sal illi, as reddas aro sis;
Ae is o mi molli is almi de lite;
Illo verbi de, an illo verbi nite.

I writ you a verse on a Molly o’ mine,
As tall as a May-pole, a lady so fine;
I never knew any so neat in mine eyes;
A man, at a glance or a sight of her, dies
Dear Molly’s a beauty, whose face and whose nose is
As fair as a lily, as red as a rose is;
A kiss o’ my Molly is all my delight;
I love her by day, and I love her by night.

See also this verse.

“Two Young Women Want Washing”

Unfortunately worded advertisements of the 19th century, collected in English as She Is Wrote (1884):

  • “Teeth extracted with great pains.”
  • “Babies taken and finished in ten minutes by a country photographer.”
  • “For sale, a handsome piano, the property of a young lady who is leaving Scotland in a walnut case with turned legs.”
  • “Wanted, a young man to take charge of horses of a religious turn of mind.”
  • “Wanted, a young man to look after a horse of the Methodist persuasion.”
  • “A steamboat-captain, in advertising for an excursion, closes thus: ‘Tickets, 25 cents; children half price, to be had at the captain’s office.'”
  • “Among carriages to be disposed of, mention is made of ‘a mail phaeton, the property of a gentleman with a moveable head as good as new.'”
  • “A landlady, innocent of grammatical knowledge, advertises that she has ‘a fine, airy, well-furnished bedroom for a gentleman twelve feet square'; another has ‘a cheap and desirable suit of rooms for a respectable family in good repair'; still another has ‘a hall bedroom for a single woman 8 x 12.'”

In a Word

acersecomic
n. a person whose hair has never been cut

In a Word

gynotikolobomassophilia
n. a proclivity for nibbling on women’s earlobes

In a Word

elozable
adj. amenable to flattery

Can Do

PLEASE DO NOT BE A DOG.

— Sign, Paris park

In a Word

deasil
adj. clockwise

In a Word

abscotchalater
n. one hiding from the police

In a Word

floccify
v. to consider worthless

Backstabbed

Richelieu recommendation

If you’re the trusting sort, you might be pleased to carry this recommendation from Cardinal Richelieu to the French ambassador at Rome.

You wouldn’t last long, though. Rather than scan each line straight across, the ambassador would fold the page in half and read the truth about you in the left column.

(From Charles Bombaugh, Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1860)

In a Word

infandous
adj. too horrible to mention

In a Word

preantepenultimate
adj. fourth from last

In a Word

breedbate
n. one who seeks an argument

That Oughta Do It

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/162709

SWIMMING POOL SUGGESTIONS
Open 24 hours. Lifeguard on duty 8AM to 8PM.
Drowning absolutely prohibited.

— Sign, Plantation Bay Resort, Philippines

STOP

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:L-Telegraph1.png

From Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905:

The following sentence won a prize offered in England for the longest twelve-word telegram:

ADMINISTRATOR-GENERAL’S COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY INTERCOMMUNICATIONS UNCIRCUMSTANTIATED. QUARTERMASTER-GENERAL’S DISPROPORTIONABLENESS CHARACTERISTICALLY CONTRA-DISTINGUISHED UNCONSTITUTIONALIST’S INCOMPREHENSIBILITIES.

It is said that the telegraph authorities accepted it as a dispatch of twelve words.

Triple Word Score

Rupert Hughes’ 1954 Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia contains what might be the most outlandish English word ever seen: ZZXJOANW. Hughes claimed it was of Maori origin, pronounced “shaw” and meaning “drum,” “fife,” or “conclusion.”

Logologists accepted this for 70 years before it was exposed as a hoax. Who can blame them? The English language contains about 500,000 legitimate words, including monstrosities like MLECHCHHA and QARAQALPAQ. Better luck next time.

In a Word

boanthropy
n. the delusion that one is an ox

The Void

In 1969, French author Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter e:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pin it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp — fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? — a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign — but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Remarkably, La Disparition has been translated into six different languages, each imposing a similar constraint — the Spanish, for instance, contains no a, and the English, here, no e.

In a Word

vivisepulture
n. burial alive

Tower of Babble

In 1996 recreational linguist Ross Eckler composed the following “transdeletion pyramid”:

A N T I C E R E M O N I A L I S T
N O N M A T E R I A L I T I E S
O R N A M E N T A L I T I E S
I N T E R L A M I N A T E S
M A T E R N A L I T I E S
M A T R I L I N E A T E
T R I L A M I N A T E
T E R M I N A L I A
L A T I M E R I A
M A T E R I A L
T A L I E R A
R E T A I L
A L T E R
R A T E
T E A
A T
A

Each word is derived from the one above, dropping one letter and scrambling the rest.

Reformed Spelling

From Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905:

A smart girl in Vassar claims that Phtholognyrrh should be pronounced Turner, and gives this little table to explain her theory:

First — Phth (as in phthisis) is … T
Second — olo (as in colonel) is … UR
Third — gn (as in gnat) is … N
Fourth — yrrh (as in myrrh) is … R

Let’s hope Mr. Turner likes fish and potatoes.

Portmanteau Geography

Can’t decide what to name your border town? Why not split the difference? Near the line between Idaho and Nevada sits a town dubbed Idavada. Similarly, there’s a Tennga between Tennessee and Georgia, and a Virgilina between Virginia and North Carolina.

This can get confusing if both states have the same idea. There are two Texarkanas, one in Texas and one in Arkansas. And Delaware and Maryland both have a Delmar and a Marydel, for a total of four towns.

Finally, for the pathologically indecisive, there’s Cal-Nev-Ari, which is in southern Nevada near California and Arizona. It’s not far from Utah, either, but apparently amity has its limits.