In the old times these isles lay there as they do now, with the wild sea round them. The men who had their homes there knew naught of the rest of the world and none knew of them. The storms of years beat on the high white cliffs, and the wild beasts had their lairs in the woods, and the birds built in trees or reeds with no one to fright them. A large part of the land was in woods and swamps. There were no roads, no streets, not a bridge or a house to be seen. The homes of these wild tribes were mere huts with roofs of straw. They hid them in thick woods, and made a ditch round them and a low wall of mud or the trunks of trees. They ate the flesh of their flocks for food, for they did not know how to raise corn or wheat. They knew how to weave the reeds that grew in their swamps, and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and a rude sort of ware out of the clay of the earth. From their rush work they made boats, and put the skins of beasts on them to make them tight and strong. They had swords made from tin and a red ore. But these swords were of a queer shape and so soft that they could be bent with a hard blow.
— Helen W. Pierson, History of England in Words of One Syllable, 1884
n. the art of horseback riding
v. to ride away
Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.
So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:
“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”
“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”
v. to smile contemptuously
adj. given to evil-speaking; slanderous
n. a curse
If the English names of the natural numbers are spelled out consecutively, what letter occurs most frequently? In 1981 Frank Rubin showed that I never overtakes E in this race. When we reach NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, the letter E has appeared 3,130 times, while I has appeared only 1,310. After NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, each of the names ONE through NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE has appeared 1,000 times to the left of the word THOUSAND and 999 times to the right, so at the ONE MILLION mark I has appeared 2,620,000 times and E 6,260,000.
When we reach ONE BILLION, I has had a bit of a boost by appearing 1,998,000,000 times in the word MILLION, but it’s not enough: At this point E has appeared 9,390,000,000 times and I only 5,928,000,000.
The gap is never closed. It narrows if an -illion word has two or more Is and no Es, but if E also appears (SEXTILLION, SEPTILLION) then it widens. I makes its closest approach at ONE SEXTILLION, when we’ve racked up 2.0159 × 1022 Is and 2.191 × 1022 Es.
In fact, the only letters that ever surpass E, anywhere in the sequence, are O at the end of TWO and T before THREE is spelled out.
(“Colloquy,” Word Ways, November 1981)
Excerpts from an Independence Day oration by Nashville attorney Edwin H. Tenney to the Young Men’s Association of Great Bend, Tenn., July 4, 1858:
- “Venerable, my Fellow Citizens, on the brilliant calendar of American Independence, is the day we celebrate. Venerable as the revolving epoch in our anniversaries of freedom is this avalanche of time. Venerable as the abacus on the citadel of greatness, thou well-spring of hope. Homestead of Liberty, we venerate thy habitation. Monument of immortality, we adorate thy worth.”
- “To those veterans eulogy is preposterous and monuments unavailing, but a heart soaking with gratitude is never bleak nor serene. Cold calumny may chill it and life’s icicles freeze it, but when thawed by recollections blood leaps through its veins. Could we learn from immortality their fame or presage their memory, the priceless league — the serried rank — the siren yell — the solemn march — the cracking bone — the flying flesh — the clinic pang — the grilling wail — the quenchless sigh and the clattering footsteps of that army welding sympathy to ages and liberty to life, will float like the dying groans of Calvary down the rapids of mortality, and whistling salvation along the whirlpool of nations, they will enter like their fathers a sea of bliss.”
- “Such a theme needs no epitasis. It needs no amphitheatre with its Ignatius irritating the lions to accelerate his glory. It needs not the inflexibility of a Laurentius — or the suavity of a Pionius for its apodosis.”
- “Some of our ladies find this romance ‘mid flounces and ostentation — ‘mid luxury and expense — ‘mid smatterers of French peppered with Latin; of Latin salted with Greek; or of Greek hashed with German. To petrify their brains with problems or dishes would be blowing up the ramparts of beauty and fortune; pillaging the flower pots of geranium magnificence, and insulting the bounties of a benevolent God.”
- “Would you remove these Senacheribs from Amaranthus — then become Malanchthons in reforms not Catalines of your country. Better banish — like Lycurgus — politician and poet rather than not tear from our wheels this drag-chain of Romance which is the pabulum of fancy and nursery of woe.”
“What does he mean by ‘blowing up the ramparts of beauty?'” wondered the Daily Alta California afterward. “The obscurity can’t be in the writer, and must therefore lie in our own ignorance. Still we ask — what are the ramparts of beauty?”
adj. not to be spoken of, unmentionable
n. things to be passed over in silence
In 1975 Phoebe Winch discovered that the 100 standard Scrabble tiles reveal a hidden message:
I AM DIETING. I EAT QUINCE JELLY. LOTS OF GROUND MAIZE GIVES VARIETY. I COOK RHUBARB AND SODA, WEEP ANEW, OR PUT ON EXTRA FLESH.
I wonder how well it works …
St. Louis teacher William Kottmeyer compiled this list of “spelling demons” in 1973. Which of these words is misspelled?
n. the part of the night immediately before daybreak
- Fathers can mother, but mothers can’t father.
- The Mall of America is owned by Canadians.
- Neil Armstrong was 17 when Orville Wright died.
- LONELY TYLENOL is a palindrome.
- 258402 + 437762 = 2584043776
- “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” — Plutarch
Edward Gorey’s pen names included Ogdred Weary, Raddory Gewe, Regera Dowdy, D. Awdrey-Gore, E.G. Deadworry, Waredo Dyrge, Deary Rewdgo, Dewda Yorger, and Dogear Wryde. Writer Wim Tigges responded, “God reward ye!”
William Barnes (1801-1886) loved language too well. He had written poetry in Standard English from an early age, but in his 30s he switched to the local Dorset dialect, which he felt was more linguistically pure:
Oh! it meäde me a’most teary-ey’d,
An’ I vound I a’most could ha’ groan’d —
What! so winnèn, an’ still cast azide —
What! so lovely, an’ not to be own’d;
Oh! a God-gift a-treated wi’ scorn
Oh! a child that a squier should own;
An’ to zend her awaÿ to be born! —
Aye, to hide her where others be shown!
A philological scholar, he had come to feel that Dorset speech, true to its Anglo-Saxon origins, was the least corrupted form of English, and best suited to paint scenes of rural life. “To write in what some may deem a fast out-wearing speech-form may seem as idle as the writing of one’s name in snow on a spring day,” he wrote. “I cannot help it. It is my mother tongue, and it is to my mind the only true speech of the life that I draw.”
His contemporary admirers included Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Hardy, but unfortunately he was right: As Standard English increasingly outmoded his beloved dialect, his poems passed into an undeserved obscurity.
“Had he chosen to write solely in familiar English, rather than in the dialect of his native Dorsetshire, every modern anthology would be graced by the verses of William Barnes,” wrote Charles Dudley Warner. “By reason of their faithfulness to everyday life and to nature, and by their spontaneity and tenderness, his lyrics, fables, and eclogues appeal to cultivated readers as well as to the rustics whose quaint speech he made his own.”
An antigram is a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged to produce an opposite meaning:
ABET = BEAT
ABOMINABLE = BON, AMIABLE
ADVERSARIES = ARE ADVISERS
ANTAGONIST = NOT AGAINST
BOASTING = IT’S NO GAB
COMMENDATION = AIM TO CONDEMN
CONVENTIONAL = I VOTE NON-CLAN
DEFIANT = FAINTED
DEMONIACAL = A DOCILE MAN
FASHIONABLE = FINE? HA, A SLOB!
FILLED = ILL-FED
FORBID = BID FOR
HIBERNIANS = BANISH ERIN
HOME RUN HITTER = I’M NOT RUTH HERE
HONESTLY = ON THE SLY
HONOREES = NO HEROES
INDISCRIMINATE = DISCERN AIM IN IT
INNERMOST = I NEST ON RIM
LEGION = LONE GI
NOMINATE = I NAME NOT
PROSPEROUS = POOR PURSES
ROUSING = SOURING
THOMAS A. EDISON = TOM HAS NO IDEAS
TIMBERLESS = TREES, LIMBS
WOMANISH = HOW MAN IS
Without any rearrangement at all, IMPARTIALLY can be read as I’M PART, I ALLY. And DEFENCE is DE-FENCE!
n. the space between a bed and the wall
Cynthia Knight published this dialogue in the Journal of Recreational Linguistics in 1984 — apart from the italicized words, it’s composed entirely from two-letter state postal abbreviations:
MS. INGA LANE, paid cook
NEAL DEMSKY, lame vandal
PA (akin), many-decade lama
Arcade game near Marineland
Concorde de la Mode
Pail, cane, alpaca
NEAL: Decoct, maid! Almond wine! Deal?
INGA (in coma): Ma! Papa! Come near me! Alms!
NEAL (florid): Mine meal! Moil, Inga!
INGA (in pain): Demand in vain!
NEAL aria, or pavane
INGA (in code): Deny; hide mail; scar me! Oh, inky condor, come! Oh, mend me!
PA: Hi, Inga. Come ride; wide lane? Mom’s game.
INGA (wail): Candor, OK? Pact?
(“Who can finish this absorbing story?”)
n. a person who has the least possible faith in something
n. one who denies the existence of the devil
n. demonic power or skill
Ronald Knox wrote, “It is stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil, when he is the only explanation of it.”
n. the worship of words
A selection of adjectives, from Laurence Urdang’s Modifiers (1982):
abbatial, of an abbot
buccinal, of trumpets
cervine, of deer
compital, of a crossroads
contabescent, of atrophy
culicid, of mosquitoes
frumentaceous, of wheat
haruspical, of a soothsayer
macropodine, of kangaroos
natant, of swimming
obumbrant, of an overhang
orarian, of the seashore
pavonine, of peacocks
smaragdine, of emeralds
sphingine, of a sphinx
suspirious, of a sigh
trochilidine, of hummingbirds
tussal, of a cough
veliferous, of sails
“The word good has many meanings,” wrote Chesterton. “For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”
Discovered by Mike Keith — Shakespeare’s 115th sonnet contains a message from the author:
The index of the 57th edition of the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics includes the entry Sea water, see Water, sea.
The Latin phrase Malo malo malo malo can be translated as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a bad boy in adversity.”
Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville’s 1973 book Elephant Have Right of Way cites the Swahili sentence Wale wa Liwali wale wale (“the people of the Arab chieftain eat cooked rice”). “How is it pronounced? Just say ‘Wally’ five times.”
And in Finnish the utterance “Kokko, gather up the whole bonfire. The whole bonfire? The whole bonfire, Kokko, gather up!” is rendered as Kokko, kokoa koko kokko kokoon. Koko kokkoko? Koko kokko, Kokko, kokoa kokoon!
n. the inhabitants of the polar circles: so called because in summer their shadows revolve around them
n. people who live on the same meridian but on opposite sides of the equator, so that their shadows at noon fall in opposite directions
n. people who live at the same latitude but on opposite meridians, so that noon for one is midnight for the other
n. a tax for the repair of fortresses
“It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.” — Andrew Jackson
“If the professors of English will complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell ‘friend,’ I say to them that something’s the matter with the way you spell friend.” — Richard Feynman
A gentleman received a letter, in which were these words: Not finding Brown at hom, I delivered your meseg to his yf. The gentleman, finding it bad spelling, and therefore not very intelligible, called his lady to help him read it. Between them they picked out the meaning of all but the yf, which they could not understand. The lady proposed calling her chambermaid, ‘because Betty,’ says she, ‘has the best knack at reading bad spelling of any one I know.’ Betty came, and was surprised that neither sir nor madam could tell what yf was. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘yf spells wife; what else can it spell?’ And, indeed, it is a much better, as well as shorter method of spelling wife, than doubleyou, i, ef, e, which in reality spell doubleyifey.
— Benjamin Franklin, letter to his sister, July 4, 1786
There comes to me a question, your ear toward me bow,
Pray listen to my ditty and do not start a row –
I’ve lots of words peculiar, enough to fill a mow —
And thoughts crowd in upon me, like piglets by a sow.
So lay aside your weapons, let no one draw the bow,
And sit yourselves around me, all neatly in a row,
On clover leaves and timothy, all ready for to mow —
Alas, we must be moving, the farmer wants to sow.
— “Cryptox,” in the National Puzzlers’ League publication Enigma, May 1945