In a Word

n. an introduction to some branch of learning

In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), two publishers propose a School of Comparative Irrelevance that teaches “useless or impossible courses,” such as Urban Planning for Gypsies, Aztec Equitation, and Potio-section.

‘Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,’ he said to Diotallevi. ‘It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.’

‘What’s tetra …?’ I asked.

‘The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.’

Overall, the school’s aim is “to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.” “The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”

(Thanks, Macari.)

For Short,_count_Bertrand_by_Paul_Delaroche.png

Henri Gatien Bertrand, Napoleon’s companion during his exile on Saint Helena, kept an impenetrable diary. The entry for January 20, 1821, reads:

N. so. le mat. en cal: il. déj. bi. se. trv. un peu fat; le so. il est f.g.

It’s not code, just extremely abbreviated French. Interpreter Paul Fleuriot de Langle referred to his work as “translating from French into French — the singular sport and strange pastime.” He rendered the passage above as:

Napoléon sort le matin en calèche. Il déjeune bien, se trouve un peu fatigué; le soir, il est fort gai

Or “Napoleon goes out in the morning in a carriage. He lunches well, finds himself a little tired; in the evening, he is very gay.” Not very incriminating — perhaps Bertrand was just trying to save paper.

(From David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, 1967.)

While You Were Out

A pleasing little philosophy puzzle:

If there’s a sentence that’s guaranteed to be false in any context, surely it’s this:

“I am not here now.”

But this very phrase is played on millions of answering machines and voicemail systems every day, and we all understand it to be true. I, here, and now are indexicals, words whose meanings change with the circumstances of their utterance. Here each seems to make a rather uncertain reference, and the resulting sentence on its face cannot be true, yet we all understand it readily. How?

(Jonathan Cohen, “Indexicality and the Puzzle of the Answering Machine,” Journal of Philosophy 110:1 [2013], 5-32.)

Will Power

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise — why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then — by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts — it is all one to me for you are quoting Shakespeare.

— Bernard Levin, Enthusiasms, 1983

Zipf’s Law
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In any language, the most frequently used word occurs about twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, and so on.

In American English text, the word the occurs most frequently, accounting for nearly 7% of all word occurrences. The second most frequent word, of, accounts for slightly over 3.5% of words, and so on.

This pattern obtains even in non-natural languages like Esperanto. It’s named for American linguist George Kingsley Zipf, who popularized it.

12/24/2021 UPDATE: Apart from languages, the law is observed in measurements of the citations of scientific papers, web hits, copies of books sold, telephone calls, the magnitude of earthquakes, the diameter of moon craters, the intensity of solar flares, the intensity of wars, and the populations of cities. See this paper. (Thanks, Snehal.)


English comedian Stanley Unwin invented his own language, “Basic Engly Twenty Fido,” a playfully twisted version of English that he said had been inspired by his mother, who once told him that she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers.”

After that, he said, he became “a masterlode of the verbally thrips oratory.” Asked his opinion of Elvis Presley, he said, “Well, from across the herring-pole where harth the people has produced some waspwaist and swivel-hippy, I must say the rhythm contrapole sideways with the head and tippy tricky half fine on the strings.”

The Small Faces asked him to narrate the story of Happiness Stan on their 1968 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. He starts, “Are you all sitty comforty bolt two square on your botty? Then I’ll begin. Like all real-life experience story this also begins once upon a polly-ti-to. Now after little lapse of time Stan became deep hungry in his tumload. After all he struggly trickly half several mileode, and anyone would suffer under this.”

This might recall Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” or such fictional languages as Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The difference is that, for the most part, Unwin wasn’t preparing his utterances in advance but improvising them on the spot.

In 2002 he was laid to rest beside his wife, Frances, under an epitaph that read “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!” And his family arranged a thanksgiving service with a valediction in his own style: “Goodly byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee — oh yes!”

In a Word

n. the name of a river, lake, sea, or any other body of water

A bizarre exchange from E.S. Turner’s 2012 What the Butler Saw, a social history of servants in English society:

Vain young gentlemen had a way of summoning their valets to answer questions to which they well knew the answer. [Beau] Brummell, when asked by a bore which of the Lakes he liked best, rang for Robinson. ‘Which of the lakes do I admire most, Robinson?’ he asked; and was informed, ‘Windermere, sir.’ ‘Ah, yes, Windermere, so it is. Thank you, Robinson.’

Palindromic Substrings

What’s unusual about this passage from Great Expectations?

It is not much to the purpose whether a gate in that garden wall which I had scrambled up to peep over on the last occasion was, on that last occasion, open or shut. Enough that I saw no gate then, and that I saw one now. As it stood open, and as I knew that Estella had let the visitors out,– for she had returned with the keys in her hand,– I strolled into the garden, and strolled all over it.

It contains a string of 15 letters that reads the same forward and backward:

It is not much to the purpose whether a gate in that garden wall which I had scrambled up to peep over on the last occasion was, on that last occasion, open or shut. Enough that I saw no gate then, and that I saw one now. As it stood open, and as I knew that Estella had let the visitors out,– for she had returned with the keys in her hand,– I strolled into the garden, and strolled all over it.

Reader Eric Harshbarger has been searching for such strings in literary texts. Here are his finds, and here’s a nifty tool he made that will find the longest palindromic substring in a given passage.

(Thanks, Eric.)

12/11/2021 UPDATE: Eric wonders what’s the longest sensible text one might construct that doesn’t contain any such substrings (an example: “We view uncopyrightable material on Wednesdays”). Add your ideas here.