ferroequinologist: a railroad enthusiast (“one who studies the iron horse”)
infracaninophile: a lover of the underdog
anti-fogmatic: an alcoholic drink that counteracts the effects of fog
In 2014 a Futility Closet reader led me to elephantocetomachia, “a fight between an elephant and a whale,” a valuable word assembled from spare parts. And my notes say that vacansopapurosophobia means “fear of blank paper” — a useful expression, even if it’s not in the dictionary.
In a 1993 segment on National Public Radio, Will Shortz challenged listeners to construct sentences that use only two consonants, such as “Can Connie, a nice niece in Canaan, can-can on a canoe in uncanny innocence?”
The winner, sent in by Dawne Bear and Rachel Chanin, was “See Tess taste-test Sissy’s sassy tea to attest to its tastiest status.” Other entries:
“Selling I. B. M.” to be sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1937 corporate hymnal Songs of The IBM:
Selling I. B. M., we’re selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We’re Watson’s great crew, we’re loyal and true;
We’re proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we’re there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We’re always in trim, we work with a vim,
We’re selling, just selling, I. B. M.!
In James Thurber’s 1957 fairytale book The Wonderful O, two pirates, Black and Littlejack, assail the innocent island of Ooroo, seeking hidden treasure. Frustrated with their unsuccessful search, Black issues an edict banning the letter O, which he hates (his mother had once become wedged in an O-shaped porthole; “we couldn’t pull her in and so we had to push her out”). Accordingly the orchestra loses its violins, cellos, and trombones; the villagers must move from cottages to huts; and so on. One laments:
They are swing chas. What is slid? What is left that’s slace? We are begne and webegne. Life is bring and brish. Even schling is flish. Animals in the z are less lacnic than we. Vices are filled with paths and scial intercurse is baths. Let us gird up ur lins like lins and rt the hrrr and ust the afs.
In the 1990s, South Baltimore native Gordon Beard compiled a series of phrasebooks to help bewildered travelers understand his city’s residents:
amblanz — ambulance
bobwar — barbed wire
corter — quarter
flare — flower
goff — golf
har — hire
keerful — careful
mare — mayor
neck store — next door
orning — awning
plooshin — pollution
roolty — royalty
twunny — twenty
varse — virus
warsh — wash
yewmid — humid
John Goodspeed, for 17 years a columnist at the Baltimore Evening Sun, had compiled his own list in the 1960s:
ahrsh — Irish
chowld — child
dayon — down
harrid — Howard
koor — car
larnix — larynx
nass — nice
owen — on
shares — showers
urshter — oyster
Apparently the confusion has persisted for decades. “The life of a Baltimore Army lieutenant may have been saved by Baltimore during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II,” Goodspeed once reported. “Military police suspected him of being a German spy in an American uniform, but an M.P. from Baltimore heard the lieutenant pronounce his home town as ‘Balamer’ and passed him as genuine. Only a native can say it that way.”
The principal trap in almost all theatres is known as the grave trap. This is one of the conventionalisms of the English stage, and is a testimony also the enduring influence of Shakespeare. It is well understood that at some time or another the play of ‘Hamlet’ will be performed in every theatre, and Ophelia‘s grave must therefore be dug in every stage — hence the grave trap. It may be that it is not always placed in the right position to suit the ideas of each new representative of the Royal Dane, and it has happened that it has been found too short for the reception of poor Ophelia‘s coffin; but it is never omitted in the construction of a stage.
— Folger Shakespeare Library Scrapbook, quoted in Paul Menzer, Anecdotal Shakespeare, 2015
A popular puzzle asks the solver to punctuate the following:
John where Willie had had had had had had had had had had had full marks.
The common answer is
John, where Willie had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had full marks.
But in 1955 a contributor to Eureka pointed out that a competing solver might have reversed the two phrases:
John, where Willie had had “had had,” had had “had”; “had had” had had full marks.
And in that case we might observe:
In the punctuation of the above, A, where B had had “… had had ‘had,’ had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had …”, had had “… had had ‘had had,’ had had ‘had’; ‘had had’ had had …”; “had had had had had had had had had had had” had had two possible interpretations.
That observation itself can be punctuated in two different ways — a remark that might be communicated using an even longer string of hads. And so on forever — “there exist intelligible sentences containing (14 × 3n – 3) successive had‘s, where n is any non-negative integer.” “The solution of this recurrence relation is left as an exercise for the student.”
In 1964, sociolinguist William Labov ran a revealing experiment in three New York department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and S. Klein. Of the three, Saks generally commanded the highest prestige and S. Klein the lowest. Labov had found that one marker of social stratification in the city was the pronunciation of the letter R, and he wanted to see whether this was reflected in the speech of the salespeople at the various stores.
He did this by approaching a salesperson in each store and asking directions to a department on the fourth floor. When the salesperson told him “Fourth floor,” he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me?” This forced the person to say the phrase “Fourth floor” again, this time rather self-consciously.
As expected, Labov found that salespeople at the upscale Saks tended to pronounce their Rs, while those at the lower-priced Klein tended to the broader New York pronunciation “fawth flaw.” But when asked to repeat the phrase, those at Macy’s and Klein’s tended to amend their pronunciation to sound more “classy.”
“How can we account for the differences between Saks and Macy’s?” Labov wrote. “I think we can say this: the shift from the influence of the New England prestige pattern [r-less] to the mid-Western prestige pattern [r-full] is felt most completely at Saks. The young people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s there is less sensitivity to the effect among a large number of younger speakers who are completely immersed in the New York City linguistic tradition. The stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation: very few of them rely upon the older pattern of prestige pronunciation which supports the r-less tendency of older Saks sales people.”
In separate interviews Labov found that two thirds of New Yorkers felt that outsiders disliked the city accent. “They think we’re all murderers,” one man told him. A woman said, “To be recognized as a New Yorker — that would be a terrible slap in the face.”
(William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2006.)