In a Word

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!”

Fading Words

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:


Without any rearrangement at all, IMPARTIALLY can be read as I’M PART, I ALLY. And DEFENCE is DE-FENCE!

In a Word

n. the space between a bed and the wall

“Come Wade, Dear Maid”

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


Arid moor
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
NEAL lams

INGA (in code): Deny; hide mail; scar me! Oh, inky condor, come! Oh, mend me!

PA came

PA: Hi, Inga. Come ride; wide lane? Mom’s game.

INGA (wail): Candor, OK? Pact?

(“Who can finish this absorbing story?”)

In a Word

n. a person who has the least possible faith in something

In a Word

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.”

In a Word

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:

sonnet 115

Repeat Performance

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!

(Thanks, Jani.)

In a Word

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

In a Word

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

Rhyming Trouble

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

In a Word

v. to make unlike a doctor, to degrade a doctor

Finnegans Brake

In 1932 C.K. Ogden translated the last four pages of Anna Livia Plurabelle into Basic English, “the International Language of 850 words in which everything may be said.”

Here’s Joyce’s text:

Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing. My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ‘Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace!

And here’s Ogden’s translation:

Well are you conscious, or haven’t you knowledge, or haven’t I said it, that every story has an ending and that’s the he and she of it. Look, look, the dark is coming. My branches high are taking root, And my cold seat’s gone grey. ‘Viel Uhr? Filou! What time is it? It’s getting late. How far the day when I or anyone last saw Waterhouse’s clock! They took it to pieces, so they said. When will they put it together again? O, my back, my back, my back! I would go then to Aix-les-Pains. Ping pong! That the bell for Sachseläute — And Concepta de Spiritu — Pang! Take the water of your cloths! Out with the old, in with the new! Godavari keep off the rains! And give us support!

“The simplest and most complex languages of man are placed side by side,” Ogden wrote. “The reader will see that it has generally been possible to keep almost the same rhythms.” Judge for yourself.

Moving Language

Writing in Word Ways in May 1975, David Silverman noted that the phrase LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY, stenciled in the leftmost traffic lane at various U.S. intersections, was ambiguous — and that both meanings had been struck down, in contested court cases in Arizona and California.

In one case, the motorist had driven straight ahead rather than turning, which the prosecutor said was illegal. The motorist returned that this wasn’t so — LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY meant that it would be illegal to make a left turn from any other lane, but it didn’t require that a left turn be made from this one. “If the city had meant my failure to turn to be illegal, they should have written FROM THIS LANE, ONLY A LEFT TURN.”

In the other case, the motorist had made a left turn from the lane to the right of one marked LEFT TURN FROM THIS LANE ONLY. He argued that this was legal — the marking required drivers in the leftmost lane to turn left, but imposed no requirement on the other lanes. “Had the city wanted to make my turn illegal the marking should have been LEFT TURN ONLY FROM THIS LANE.”

Both motorists were found not guilty. Perhaps because of such confusion, Silverman noted, most intersections had lately begun to use unambiguous arrows: “One good picture is worth ten thousand signs reading LEFT TURN IF AND ONLY IF FROM THIS LANE.”

Dream Sentences

After taking opium at Malta, Coleridge dreamed of the sentence “Varrius thus prophesied vinegar at his door by damned frigid tremblings.”

Delirious with fever in Scotland, Maria Edgeworth was haunted by the words “A soldier of the forty-second has lost his portmanteau.”

In a vision at Lerici, Shelley met his own figure, which asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”

Poet William Mickle regretted that he could not remember the poetry he composed in his dreams, which he said was “infinitely superior to anything he produced in his waking hours.” But his wife recited two lines he had spoken in his sleep:

By Heaven, I’ll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose.

Robert Browning dreamed that he attended a performance of Richard III and heard a line “immensely finer than anything else in the play. … When I woke I still had hold of the stupendous line, and it was this:

‘And when I wake my dreams are madness — Damn me!'”


In 1942 Niels Bohr was asked to give an address on the 300th anniversary of Isaac Newton’s birth. In discussing with Abraham Pais the themes that he might address, he wrote the word harmony on a blackboard:

bohr handwriting - harmony

As they continued to talk he grew dissatisfied with this. At last he said, “Now I’ve got it. We must change harmony to uniformity.” And he did so with “one triumphant bang”:

bohr handwriting - uniformity

Pais called this “the most remarkable act of calligraphy I shall ever witness.”

See Letter From New York.

In a Word

adj. struggling while blindfolded

A More Perfect Union

The names of the 48 contiguous United States fall neatly into the two halves of the alphabet:

state names alphabetized

16 start with A-L, 16 with M-N, and 16 with O-Z.

Kid Lit

In 1967 Luis d’Antin Van Rooten published Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames, a collection of French poems that make little sense until you read them aloud:

Oh, les mots d’heureux bardes
Où en toutes heures que partent.
Tous guetteurs pour dock à Beaune.
Besoin gigot d’air
De que paroisse paire.
Et ne pour dock, pet-de-nonne.

Et qui rit des curés d’Oc?
De Meuse raines, houp! de cloques.
De quelles loques ce turque coin.
Et ne d’ânes ni rennes,
Écuries des curés d’Oc.

In 1980 Ormonde de Kay met this with N’Heures Souris Rames:

Très bel aï n’ de maïs
Si à Oudh héronne.
Des Halles Roi Naphte de phare mer soif
Chicot taffetas tel suite de carvi naïf.
Didier voyou si sachée saille t’ignore l’aï
Fesse très bel aï n’ de maïs.

Rabais dab dab
Trille, ménine, taupe.
Hindou d’yeux tines, que débit?
Débouchoir du bécarre
De canne d’élastique maigre.
Trop d’émaux, nefs alterés.

And in 1981 John Hulme expanded into German with Mörder Guss Reims:

Schach an Schill! Wend’ ab die Hilde —
Fesch Appel, oh Worte!
Schachfell Daunen, Brockensgrauen,
Und Schill Keim Tuümpel in Naphtha.

Pater keck, Pater keck, Bechers Mann.
Bigamie er keck es Festeschuh kann.
Batet und Brikett und Marktwitwe Tie
Und Butter, Tinte offen fort Omi Anämie.

Um die Dumm’ die Saturn Aval;
Um die Dumm’ die Ader Grät’ fahl.
Alter ging’s Ohr säss und Alter ging’s mähen.
Kuh denn “putt” um Dieter Gitter er gähn.

“In this lively allegorical poem a foolish Greek maiden becomes embroiled with the supernatural and is rescued in the nick of time from a fate worse than immortality by being turned into a cow.”

See also “It Means Just What I Choose It to Mean” and Read It Aloud.

(I think de Kay is the same fellow who proposed the theory of continental drip — a very playful man!)

In a Word

n. a government by the wind

Frank Hurley took the photo above during Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911. “The figure is actually leaning on a constant 100 miles per hour wind while picking ice for culinary purposes.”