Captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965, Navy pilot Jeremiah Denton was forced to participate in a propaganda interview to be broadcast in the United States. Pretending to be oppressed by the television lights, he blinked the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code — alerting U.S. Naval Intelligence for the first time that American prisoners were being tortured.

In his Investigator’s Guide to Steganography (2003), Gregory Kipper notes that captured soldiers would sometimes use hand signals to transmit messages during photo ops; “often, these gestures were airbrushed out by the media.”

“Described in a Word”

The members of the Flemish Academy, of Anvers, recently determined to frame a word which would be readily intelligible to all who understand the language of Flanders and who had ever seen a horseless carriage, and the result was that after much deep thought they framed the following word: Snelpaardelooszonderspoorwegpetrolrijtuig. This euphonious word signifies ‘a carriage which is worked by means of petroleum, which travels fast, which has no horses and which is not run on rails.’ This is, from one point of view, a fine example of multum in parvo, but it may be questioned whether one extraordinarily long word is preferable to half a dozen short words.

Georgetown [Colo.] Herald, May 19, 1899



  • It’s illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armor, according to a 1313 statute.
  • “All things in moderation” is an immoderate policy.
  • If a prime number is made up entirely of 1s (e.g., 11), then the number of its digits is prime.
  • The word CARBON is itself made up of element symbols (Ca, Rb, O, N). (Dmitri Borgmann)
  • Interior decorator Nicholas Haslam: “All it comes down to is making a setting in which people look prettier.”

07/17/2024 UPDATE: Several readers point out, correctly, that carbon is hardly the only elemental “chemical word” — indeed, some elements can be spelled in multiple ways. I’ve assembled this list from multiple contributions:


TiN is even a valid compound, titanium nitride.

Of these Borgmann had found arsenic, carbon, iron, neon, phosphorus, silicon, and xenon when he wrote in 1974, “surely the most unusual is CARBON which can be factored into elements not including itself.” But that property wasn’t unique even within his limited list, as can be seen above.

Many thanks to readers Gareth McCaughan, Catalin Voinescu, and Eric Harshbarger for writing in about this.

Unusual Biological Names

Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • Herpetologist Mark Scherz named three tiny species of Malagasy frog Mini ature, Mini scule, and Mini mum.
  • Malacologist Alan Solem named a Fijian land snail Ba humbugi.
  • The name of each species in the African spider genus Palindroma is a palindrome: P. aleykyela, P. avonova, P. morogorom, P. obmoimiombo, P. sinis.
  • The binomial name of the crowned slaty flycatcher has 15 syllables: Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus.
  • Malacologist John Stanisic named an Australian land snail Crikey steveirwini.
  • The Australian leafhopper genus Dziwneono, named by entomologist Irena Dworakowska, is Polish for “It is strange.”

In 1977, on receiving a package of insect specimens from a colleague, entomologist Arnold Menke exclaimed, “Aha, a new genus!” His colleague Eric Grissell responded “Ha” doubtfully. Menke was proven right and named the species, an Australian wasp, Aha ha. He ordered a custom registration plate for his car bearing the same phrase. Further odd names.

In a Word


adj. difficult to deal with or settle

n. a verbal nicety, a subtle distinction

n. the act of bringing something up to date to meet current needs

adj. fitted or designed to promote peace

The survivors of the Titanic were picked up by the English passenger steamship Carpathia, which conveyed them to New York. This presented a delicate problem to the Social Register. “In those days the ship that people travelled on was an important yardstick in measuring their standing, and the Register dutifully kept track,” notes Walter Lord in A Night to Remember (1955). “To say that listed families crossed on the Titanic gave them their social due, but it wasn’t true. To say they arrived on the plodding Carpathia was true, but socially misleading. How to handle this dilemma? In the case of those lost, the Register dodged the problem — after their names it simply noted the words, ‘died at sea, 15 April 1912’. In the case of those living, the Register carefully ran the phrase, ‘Arrived Titan-Carpath, 18 April 1912’. The hyphen represented history’s greatest sea disaster.”

In a Word


n. a man killer; an executioner

In 1014, after a decisive victory over the Bulgarian Empire at the Battle of Kleidion, Byzantine emperor Basil II followed up with a singularly cruel stroke. He ordered that his 14,000 prisoners be divided into groups of 100; that 99 of each group be blinded; and that the hundredth retain one eye so that he could lead the others home. The columns were then released into the mountains, each man holding on to the belt of the man in front. It’s not known how many were lost on the journey, but when the survivors reached the Bulgar capital, their tsar collapsed at the sight and died of a stroke two days later. Basil is remembered as “the Bulgar slayer.”


From 1995 to 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran a bad writing contest to mark “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles.” The final year’s winners:

First prize:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

— Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” in the journal Diacritics

Second prize:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalise’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

— Homi K. Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture

Third prize:

As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet’s work of ‘les noms du père’, a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus (‘Les Non-dupes errent’), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihilates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child.

— Steven Z. Levine in Bradford Collins, ed., Twelve Views of Manet’s Bar

The contest’s only condition was that entries not be ironic: “Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread.” The full list of winners is here.

Brave New World

We instinktivly shrink from eny chaenj in whot iz familyar; and whot kan be mor familyar dhan dhe form ov wurdz dhat we hav seen and riten mor tiemz dhan we kan posibly estimaet? We taek up a book printed in Amerika, and honor and center jar upon us every tiem we kum akros dhem; nae, eeven to see forever in plaes ov for ever atrakts our atenshon in an unplezant wae. But dheez ar iesolaeted kaesez; think ov dhe meny wurdz dhat wood hav to be chaenjd if eny real impruuvment wer to rezult. At dhe furst glaans a pasej in eny reformd speling looks ‘kweer’ or ‘ugly’. Dhis objekshon iz aulwaez dhe furst to be maed; it iz purfektly natueral; it iz dhe hardest to remuuv. Indeed, its efekt iz not weekend until dhe nue speling iz noe longger nue, until it haz been seen ofen enuf to be familyar.

— Walter Ripman and William Archer, New Spelling, 1948

A Tour of England

From reader Dave King:

A certain young lady of Prinknash
Was looking decidedly thinknash.
Her diet restriction
Had proved an addiction
And caused her to swiftly diminknash.

A hungry young student of Norwich
Went into his larder to forwich.
For breakfast he usually
Had bacon or muesli
But today he would have to have porwich.

An ethical diner at Alnwick
Was suddenly put in a palnwick
“This coffee you’ve made
Are you sure it’s Fair Trade?
And I must insist that it’s orgalnwick!”

A Science don, Gonville and Caius,
Kept body parts in his deep fraius.
He didn’t remember
And one dark November
He ate them with cabbage and paius.

A Frenchman now living at Barnoldswick
Was terribly partial to garnoldswick.
The smell of his breath
Drove one lady to death;
She fell from the ramparts at Harnoldswick.

A forceful young prisoner from Brougham
Was confined to a windowless rougham,
So, venting his feelings,
He bashed through the ceiling,
Dispelling the gathering glougham.

(Thanks, Dave.)

True Love

The 1937 edition of Webster’s Universal Dictionary of the English Language contains this peculiar entry:

jungftak (jŭngf´ täk) n. a fabled Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enabled to fly, — each, when alone, had to remain on the ground.

This appears to be neither an error nor a trap to catch copyright thieves. When scholar Richard Rex asked about it, an associate editor at the dictionary replied, “[W]e have gone through a good many sources and jungftak simply does not show up. It is quite a curiosity, for the various accounts of Persian mythology do not describe such a bird even under another name.” The entry disappears from editions after 1943. Probably it was a joke, but the story behind it is lost.

(Richard Rex, “The Incredible Jungftak,” American Speech 57:4 [Winter 1982], 307-308.)

06/19/2024 UPDATE: Reader Nick Hare offers another fantastic bird: the oozlum, which flies in smaller and smaller circles until it disappears up its own backside. Wikipedia observes drily that this behavior “adds to its rarity.”

06/21/2024 UPDATE: Wow, this is really interesting. Reader Edward White informs me that there’s a bird in Chinese mythology, the biyiniao or linked-wing bird, that closely resembles the jungftak — each biyiniao has one eye and one wing, so they have to pair up to fly. The bird is used as a symbol of married love in poems. Can this be a coincidence?