Ethology

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo_sentence_diagram.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

I had written about this back in 2006, but it’s worth mentioning again because someone has created this pellucid diagram: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a grammatical English sentence. It means something like “Bison residing in Buffalo, New York, feeling themselves intimidated by their fellows, visit a similar fate upon yet others of their local ilk.”

I’d attributed it to linguist William J. Rapaport, but apparently it’s arisen independently at least three times, first (it is believed) by wordplay maven Dmitri Borgmann, in 1965.

Root Words

Square roots:

EIGHTY-ONE has 9 letters.

ONE HUNDRED has 10 letters.

FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY SIX has 24 letters.

Cube roots:

THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED FOUR has 34 letters.

SIXTY-EIGHT THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE has 41 letters.

ONE MILLION and ONE BILLION have 10 letters each, making them a sixth root and (in the United States) a ninth root word.

(Dave Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 30:2 [May 1997], 129-141.)

One of a Kind

An unpaired word has a prefix or suffix that suggests that an antonym exists when in fact it doesn’t: disheveled is a word, but sheveled isn’t. In many cases the seeming antonym is a real word that’s fallen out of popular usage: corrigible, domitable, effable, feckful, gainly, nocuous, scathed, stinting, trepid, and wieldy are words; they’re just not used as often as their opposites.

Somewhat similarly, a plurale tantum is a noun that appears only its plural form: We speak of scissors and trousers, but not normally of “a scissor” or “a trouser.” A singulare tantum is a noun that’s used only in the singular, such as information, dust, or wealth.

(See “A Very Descript Man.”) (Thanks, Matt.)

Unspoken

A little oddity: In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a sentence of 16 words (“The change will do you good, and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” spoken to Newland Archer by his wife May) has a meaning of 221 words:

It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: ‘Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathise with my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree in approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you, this evening, the hint that has made you so irritable…. Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval — and to take the opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is likely to lead to.’

The Stairs of Reconciliation

https://www.flickr.com/photos/liakadaweb/44140173651
Image: Flickr

The Burg, the official headquarters of the regional government in Graz, Austria, contains a double spiral staircase, two flights of stairs spiraling in opposite directions that “reunite” at each floor, a masterpiece of architecture designed in 1499.

Bonus: Interestingly, several facades of the building bear the inscription A.E.I.O.U., a motto coined by Frederick III in 1437, when he was Duke of Styria. It’s not clear what this means, and over the ensuing centuries heraldists have offered more than 300 interpretations:

  • “All the world is subject to Austria” (Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
  • “I am loved by the elect” (from the Latin amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor)
  • “Austria is best united by the Empire” (Austria est imperio optime unita)
  • “Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world” (Austria erit in orbe ultima)
  • “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” (Austriae est imperare orbi universo)

At the time Styria was not yet part of Austria, so here it would refer to the House of Austria, or the Habsburg dynasty — which historically adopted the curious motto itself.

Forward and Back

In 1996, Will Shortz invited the listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday to submit word-level palindromes — sentences that remain unchanged when their words are read in reverse order, such as “King, are you glad you are king?” Runners-up:

  • Fall leaves after leaves fall.
  • Will my love love my will?
  • Herb the sage eats sage the herb.
  • Please me by standing by me, please!
  • “Rock of Ages” preceded ages of “rock.”
  • Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher.
  • In order to stop hunger, stop to order in.
  • Blessed are they that believe that they are blessed.
  • Parents love to have children; children have to love parents.
  • Says Mom, “What do you do?” You do what Mom says.
  • Family first sees Holy Father secretly father holy see’s first family.
  • You know, I did little for you, for little did I know you.
  • Did I say you never say “Never say never”? You say I did.
  • Good little student does plan future, but future plan does student little good.
  • Better doctors like people treated well because well-treated people like doctors better.
  • Celebrate! Why not? If happy birthday’s your hope, I hope your birthday’s happy! If not, why celebrate?
  • Pain increase to aching back strikes, and sufferer finds no doctor. Doctor No finds sufferer and strikes back, aching to increase pain.

The grand prize winner, by Peter L. Stein of San Francisco, was “First Ladies rule the state, and state the rule — ‘Ladies first!'”

(Will Shortz, “New Word Palindromes,” Word Ways 30:1 [February 1997], 11-12.)

Noted

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvelously, the Bolognese have a dedicated word to describe retired men who pass their time watching construction sites: umarells. (Wikipedia says they stand “stereotypically with hands clasped behind their back and offering unwanted advice.”)

The word was first offered with this meaning by writer Danilo Masotti in 2005, but increasingly it’s being used in other parts of Italy. Within Bologna, it was honored in 2017 with a public square dubbed Piazzetta degli Umarells — which, ironically, was under construction at the time.

Related: A gongoozler is someone who enjoys watching activity on the canals of the United Kingdom. Presumably these two groups intersect.

Twice True

SEVEN PLUS TWO = EIGHTEEN MINUS NINE = EIGHTEEN OVER TWO

That’s true enough on its face. But Susan Thorpe discovered that if each letter is replaced with the number of its position in the alphabet (A=1, B=2, etc.), then the equivalence persists — the values in each of the three phrases total 191.

(Susan Thorpe, “Number Name Equations,” Word Ways 30:1 [February 1997], 34-36.)