The Alphabet of Nature

Philologist Alexander John Ellis wanted to describe the sounds made by every human speaker, and to record them as objectively as possible in a universal alphabet, so that anyone could accurately record speech in any language. He acknowledged that “it would be impossible to make the whole world pronounce alike,” but he thought that the system illustrated above could be a step toward “a just, philosophical, and natural analysis and arrangement of spoken sounds.”

The passage runs:

The third question that we had to consider was: is it possible or expedient to bring such an alphabet as this into common use? Alphabetical writing was certainly intended originally to be a guide to the sound of words, and that only; whether at first sufficient attention was paid to this point, whether the first alphabet was perfect, does not now admit of satisfactory investigation; but it would seem at any rate that the vowel department was much disregarded, and perhaps not even all the consonants were properly discriminated. …

Beyond its practical value, Ellis seemed to hope that recording language phonetically would reduce its cultural connotations, resulting in a more just world. “Ellis believes that his ‘alphabet of nature’ would in fact free letters from implying a particular world view, a theory supremely indicative of a nineteenth-century faith in objective science,” writes Laurence de Looze in The Letter & the Cosmos. “The utopian drive of universal communication peeks through the modern, scientific program.”

Pleased to Meet You

Unusual personal names collected by onomasticist Elsdon C. Smith for his Treasury of Name Lore, 1967:

  • Dr. Pacifico D. Quitiquit
  • Lala Legattee Wiggins
  • Stanley Toogood
  • Effie Bowleg
  • Polycarp Pridgen
  • Merriweather Trivelpiece
  • Aspidia Snitch
  • Tabaca Blacksheep
  • Iva Headache
  • Marietta Avenue Jeeter
  • Vaseline Malaria
  • Soda Water
  • Ten Million
  • St. Elmo Bug
  • Fice Mook
  • Trammer W. Splown
  • Gulley Cowsert
  • Buckshot Magonicle
  • Teemer Furr
  • Sepnoress Gorce
  • Heathcliff Heimerdinger
  • Honeysuckle Ginsberg
  • Ephraim Very Ott
  • Gladys Whysoglad
  • Park A. Carr
  • Creekmore Fath
  • May June July
  • Melody Tunes
  • Ann Ant
  • Fairy Duck
  • Vito d’Incognito
  • Napoleon N. Waterloo
  • Tressanela Noosepickle
  • Osbel Irizarry
  • Athelstan Spilhaus
  • Weikko Tinklepaugh
  • Twilladeen Hubkapiller

According to the Veterans Administration, Love’n Kisses Love is a deceased sailor formerly of Bremerton, Washington. Walt Disney employed an animator named T. Hee. Outerbridge Horsey VI was named ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1963. (“I am the sixth Outerbridge Horsey and my unhappy son is the seventh. In fact, the only trouble with any new post is explaining the name to people.”) Gisella Werberzerck Piffl was a character actress in Australia in 1948. Two police officers who worked together in Long Beach, California, in 1953 were named Goforth and Ketchum. Jack Benny’s wife said that the firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (now BBDO) “sounds like a trunk falling down stairs.”

And “When Mrs. Rum of Chicago divorced her husband she was allowed to resume her maiden name of Cork.”

See Local Color, Roll Call, Pink Labels, Roll Call, Roll Call, and Bent Handles.

More Theatrical Codes

Last year I mentioned Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, a telegraphic code for “everyone connected in any way with the theatrical business.” The idea is that performers, managers, and exhibitors could save money on telegrams by replacing common phrases with short code words:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing

At the time I lamented that I had only one page. Well, a reader just sent me the whole book, and it is glorious:

Abbacom – Carry elaborate scenery and beautiful costumes
Abbalot – Fairly bristles with hits
Abditarum – This attraction will hurt our business
Addice – Why have not reported for rehearsal
Admorsal – If you do not admit at once will have to bring suit of attachment
Behag – Not the fault of play or people
Bordaglia – Do not advance him any money
Boskop – Understand our agent is drinking; if this is true wire at once
Bosom – Understand you are drinking
Bosphorum – Understand you are drinking and not capable to transact business
Bosser – We are up against it here
Bottle – You must sober up
Bouback – Your press notices are poor
Deskwork – A versatile and thoroughly experienced actress
Despair – Absolute sobriety at all times essential
Detour – Actress for emotional leads
Devilry – Actress with child preferred
Dextral – An actor with fine reputation and proven cleverness
Dishful – Comedian, Swedish dialect
Disorb – Do not want drunkards
Dispassion – Do you object to going on road
Distal – Good dresser(s) both on and off stage
Dormillon – Lady for piano
Drastic – Must be shapely and good looking
Druism – Not afraid of work
Eden – Strong heavy man
Election – What are their complexions
Epic – Does he impress you as being reliable and a hustler
Exclaimer – Are they bright, clever and healthy children
Eyestone – Can you recommend him as an experienced and competent electrician
Faro – A B♭ cornetist
Flippant – Must understand calcium lights
Fluid – Is right up-to-date and understands his business from A to Z
Forester – Acts that are not first class and as represented, will be closed after first performance
Foxhunt – Can deliver the goods
Gultab – The people will not stand for such high prices
Hilbert – State the very lowest salary for which she will work, by return wire
Jansenist – Fireproof theatre
Jinglers – How did the weather affect house
Jolly – Temperature is 15° above zero

There’s also an appendix for the vaudeville circuit:

Kajuit – Trick cottage
Kakour – Grotesque acrobats
Kalekut – Sparring and bag punching act
Kernwort – Troupe of dogs, cats and monkeys
Kluefock – Upside down cartoonist
Koegras – Imitator of birds, etc.
Letabor – Act is poorly staged and arranged
Litterat – The asbestos curtain has not arrived yet
Mallius – How many chairs do you need in the balcony
Meleto – Is the opposition putting on stronger shows than we

The single word “Lechuzo” stands for “Make special effort to mail your report on acts Monday night so as to enable us to determine your opinion of the same, as in many instances yours will be the first house that said act has performed in, and again by receiving your report early it enables us to correct in time any error that may be made regarding performer, salary and efficiency.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

For Short
Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to Elsdon Smith’s 1967 Treasury of Name Lore, Gwendolyn Kuuleikailialohaopiilaniwailaukekoaulumahiehiekealaoonoaonaopiikea Kekino had a birth certificate to prove her name. Her family called her Piikea.

Albert K. Kahalekula of Wailuku, Hawaii, was a private in the Army in 1957. The K stood for Kahekilikuiikalewaokamehameha. Until Albert’s 29-letter middle name was registered, his brothers had the longest middle names in U.S. military service — each was 22 letters long.

In 1955, restaurant owner George Pappavlahodimitrakopoulous had the longest name in the Lansing, Mich., telephone directory. He made a standing offer of a free meal to anyone who could pronounce the name correctly on the first try (PDF).

Lambros A. Pappatoriantafillospoulous of Chicopee, Mass., joined the Army in 1953, where he was called Mr. Alphabet.

According to Smith, a native policeman in Fiji, British Polynesia, had the name Marika Tuimudremudrenicagitokalauna-tobakonatewaenagaunakalakivolaikoyakinakotamanaenaiivolanikawabualenavalenivolavolaniyasanamaisomosomo, 130 letters long. “The name is said to tell that, with the aid of a northerly wind, Marika’s father sailed from Natewa, on Vanua Levu, to the provincial office at Somosomo, Taveuni, to register the birth of the child.”

The longest name on the Social Security rolls in 1938 was Xenogianokopoulos.

Smith also says that a Fiji Island cricket player bore the 56-letter name Talebulamaineiilikenamainavaleniveivakabulaimakulalakeba.

The oldest Buddhist university in Thailand is Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.

Above: In 1921 Laurence J. Daly, editor of the Webster Times, proposed lengthening the name of Lake Chaubunagungamaug to Lake Char­gogg­a­gogg­man­chaugg­a­gogg­chau­bun­a­gung­a­maugg, which arguably makes it the longest place name in the United States.

Many locals just call it Webster Lake.

Initial Velocity

In 2008, University of Michigan psychologist Jesse Chandler and his colleagues examined donations to disaster relief after seven major hurricanes and found that a disproportionately large number of donations came from people who shared an initial with the hurricane (e.g., people named Kate and Kevin after Hurricane Katrina).

It’s not clear why this is. It’s known that generally people attend to information with unusual care if it’s somehow relevant to themselves; in the case of a hurricane this may mean that they’re more likely to remember concrete information about victims and thus be more likely to donate.

Possibly they also feel more intense negative feelings (or a greater sense of responsibility) when the storm shares their initial. In that case, “Exposure to a same-initial hurricane makes people feel worse, and the most salient way to repair this feeling is the opportunity to donate money to Katrina.”

(Jesse Chandler, Tiffany M. Griffin, and Nicholas Sorensen, “In the ‘I’ of the Storm: Shared Initials Increase Disaster Donations,” Judgment and Decision Making 3:5 [June 2008], 404–410.)

In a Word

n. a member of a drinking party

adj. winged

n. fighting or strife

n. a turning upside down

“In Other Words,” an airman’s drinking song from World War I:

I was fighting a Hun in the heyday of youth,
Or perhaps ’twas a Nieuport or Spad.
I put in a burst at a moderate range
And it didn’t seem too bad.
For he put down his nose in a curious way,
And as I watched, I am happy to say:

He descended with unparalleled rapidity,
His velocity ‘twould beat me to compute.
I speak with unimpeachable veracity,
With evidence complete and absolute.
He suffered from spontaneous combustion
As towards terrestrial sanctuary he dashed,
In other words — he crashed!

I was telling the tale when a message came through
To say ’twas a poor RE8.
The news somewhat dashed me, I rather supposed
I was in for a bit of hate.
The CO approached me. I felt rather weak,
For his face was all mottled, and when he did speak

He strafed me with unmitigated violence,
With wholly reprehensible abuse.
His language in its blasphemous simplicity
Was rather more exotic than abstruse.
He mentioned that the height of his ambition
Was to see your humble servant duly hung.
I returned to Home Establishment next morning,
In other words — I was strung!

As a pilot in France I flew over the lines
And there met an Albatros scout.
It seemed that he saw me, or so I presumed;
His manoeuvres left small room for doubt.
For he sat on my tail without further delay
Of my subsequent actions I think I may say:

My turns approximated to the vertical,
I deemed it most judicious to proceed.
I frequently gyrated on my axis,
And attained colossal atmospheric speed,
I descended with unparalleled momentum,
My propeller’s point of rupture I surpassed,
And performed the most astonishing evolutions,
In other words — * *** ****!

I was testing a Camel on last Friday week
For the purpose of passing her out.
And before fifteen seconds of flight had elapsed
I was filled with a horrible doubt
As to whether intact I should land from my flight.
I half thought I’d crashed — and half thought quite right!

The machine seemed to lack coagulation,
The struts and sockets didn’t rendezvous,
The wings had lost their super-imposition,
Their stagger and their incidental, too!
The fuselage developed undulations,
The circumjacent fabric came unstitched
Instanter was reduction to components,
In other words — she’s pitched!

(From Peter G. Cooksley, Royal Flying Corps 1914-1918, 2007.)

Worth a Try
Image: Wikipedia

The gravestone of John Renie, a 19th-century house painter, at St. Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth, Wales, is a 285-letter acrostic puzzle — from the central H the sentence “Here lies John Renie” can be traced out (in king’s moves) in 45,760 different ways. Renie probably carved it himself; according to cleric Lionel Fanthorpe, he hoped it would occupy the devil while he escaped to heaven.

See “Remarkable Inscription” and A Puzzling Exit.

Who’s Calling?

Actual names found by Joseph F. Wilkinson on a CD-ROM of U.S. residential telephone directories, 1996:

Barbara Seville
Gloria Monday
Rosetta Stone
Robin Banks
Frank Earnest
Clark Barr
Frank N. Stein
Georgia Peach
M.T. Head
Minnie Vann
Pearl Harper
Sunny Day
Phil Harmonic
Lance Boyle
King Fisher
Al Dente
Albert Fresco
James Dandy
Laurel Hardy
Nosmo King

A few become distinctive when the last name is listed first:

Cracker, Jack
Dollar, Bill
Wise, Guy
Sweet, Lorraine
North, Carolina
Oopsy, Daisy

“All these memorable names left me with the feeling that my own is quite forgettable,” Wilkinson wrote. “If only my parents had named me Sword, my phone book listing might have really given me an edge.”

(Joseph F. Wilkinson, “What’s in a Name? Just Ask King Fisher, Robin Banks and Minnie Vann,” Smithsonian 26:12 [March 1996], 136.)

Words and Music

Anthony Burgess based his 1974 novel Napoleon Symphony explicitly on the structure of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica:

  • The story is told in four “movements,” whose length corresponds to the listening time of the corresponding parts of the symphony: 118 pages (14:46 minutes), 120 pages (15:34 minutes), 30 pages (5:33 minutes), and 77 pages (11:27 minutes).
  • The allegro takes Bonaparte “from his early Italian triumphs to his crowning as Emperor”; the marcia funebre moves to the retreat from Russia; in the scherzo Napoleon attends a play featuring Prometheus; and the finale depicts his life and death on St. Helena.
  • Where the symphony begins with two sharp chords, the novel starts with Napoleon giving Josephine “two excruciating love-pinches.” In the first movement Bonaparte corresponds to the “masculine thematic group,” Josephine to the “second, or feminine subject.” The sonata form requires repetition, so, for example, the opening sentence, “Germinal in the Year Four” appears in the “recapitulation” with a slight variation, as “Germinal in the Year Seven.” The contrasting themes are reflected in shifts of scene and viewpoint, and harmonic variation is suggested by the frequent repetition of certain phrases with minor changes.
  • In the second movement Napoleon dreams of his death in verses set precisely to the rhythm of Beethoven’s theme (these are printed with the score in his essay “Bonaparte in E Flat” in This Man and Music):

    There he lies,
    Ensanguinated tyrant
    O bloody, bloody tyrant
    How the sin within
    Doth incarnadine
    His skin
    From the shin to the chin.

  • During the retreat from Russia, he approximates counterpoint by writing in two levels of language, which he hopes “will leave an aftertaste of polyphony.” For example: “The primary need, General Eblé said, is to obtain the requisite structural materials and this will certainly entail the demolition of civilian housing in the adjacent township. Now the first job, Sergeant Rebour said, is to get planking, and the only way to get it is to pull down all those fucking houses.”
  • In the scherzo the waltz rhythm is reflected in sentences such as “Dance dance dance! The orchestra struck up another waltz” and “They danced. United Kingdom of Benelux Benelux, Britain gets Malte and Cape of Good Hope.”
  • The finale is based on the so-called Prometheus theme (E-flat, B-flat, B-flat, E-flat), which Burgess visualizes as a cross in the score. He interprets the initials on Jesus’ cross, INRI, as Impera[torem] Nap[oleonem] Regem Interfec[it], an acrostic that recurs throughout the movement.

Overall, Burgess said, he wanted to pursue “one mad idea”: “to give / Symphonic shape to verbal narrative” and to “impose on life … the abstract patterns of the symphonist.”

He dedicated the novel to Stanley Kubrick, hoping that it might form the basis of the director’s long-planned biography of the emperor, but Kubrick decided that “the [manuscript] is not a work that can help me make a film about the life of Napoleon.” Undismayed, Burgess developed it instead into an experimental novel. The critics didn’t like it, but he said it was “elephantine fun” to write.

(From Theodore Ziolkowski, Music Into Fiction, 2017.)