A Global Code


With The Scientific Dial Primer (1912), Andrew Hallner aimed to make a universal phrasebook for all mankind. The dial contains five rings, and code words can be constructed by working from the center outward. For example, the first ring contains 5 vowels and the second 20 consonants; these can be combined to create 100 two-letter words that are used to represent the numbers 1-100 (ti, for example, means 56). Adding the third ring yields 2,525 one-syllable three-letter words, which are given specific meanings (jad refers to a butcher knife, dag to cement in sacks). With some refinements, the system can encode a message as specific as this:

We shall discard all Sunday newspapers, for these are the chief sinners and temptors, being themselves Sabbath-breakers, and maintain but one or two dailies. But these you need not look at, for I will read to you such articles and extracts as relate to Congress and general intelligence, profitable and elevating to know about.

This assertion would be represented everywhere by the same code, qema; speakers of different languages would only need local phrasebooks that explain this meaning to each in his own tongue.

“By writing or pointing to the Scientific Dial Code-Word, therefore, you can communicate intelligently with any nationality on our globe,” Hallner wrote. “You can travel in or through any country, find the way, buy tickets, give orders in hotels and restaurants, attend to toilet, address the barber, arrange your baths, and do anything and everything necessary in travel; and in ordering goods, in exchanging money, and in carrying on general business transactions. And all this knowledge may be acquired in a week! For to acquire and make use of this knowledge is only to understand the Scientific Dial and the principles involved.”

The whole thing is here.

Dash It All

In “Freaks of the Telegraph,” an 1881 article in Blackwood’s Magazine, Charles Lewes points out that in Morse code the words BAD (-… .- -..) and DEAD (-.. . .- -..) differ only by the space between the D and E in DEAD.

This could result in a sentence such as MOTHER WAS BAD BUT NOW RECOVERED being interpreted strangely as MOTHER WAS DEAD BUT NOW RECOVERED. “Of course, in this case a telegraph operator (short of believing in zombies) would likely notice something was amiss and ask for confirmation of the message — or else attempt to correct it himself,” writes N. Katherine Hayles in How We Think.

But correcting it himself could lead to further misunderstandings. Lewes gives one example: “A lady, some short time since, telegraphed, ‘Send them both thanks,’ by which she meant, ‘Thank you; send them both’ — (the ‘both’ referred to two servants). The telegram reached its destination as ‘Send them both back,’ thus making sense as the official mind would understand it, but a complete perversion of the meaning of the writer.”

Simple Terms

In 1860 Manchester layman J. Gill wrote “a sermon in words of one syllable only”:

He who wrote the Psalm in which our text is found, had great cause to both bless and praise God; for he had been brought from a low state to be a great king in a great land; had been made wise to rule the land in the fear and truth of God; and all his foes were, at the time he wrote, at peace with him. Though he had been poor, he was now rich in this world’s goods; though his youth had been spent in the care of sheep, he now wore a crown; and though it had been his lot for a long time to hear the din of war and strife, peace now dwelt round the throne, and the land had rest.

The whole thing is here. “This Sermon … is offered to the public with the view of showing that at least big words are not necessary for the conveyance of great truths to the minds of the people,” he wrote in a preface. “[I have] an ambition to prove that, in the advocacy of religious truth, very plain, simple, and old-fashioned words have not yet lost their original force and significance.”


The Coquillars, a 16th-century company of French bandits, created “an exquisite language” “that other people cannot understand”:

A crocheteur is someone who picks locks. A vendegeur is a snatcher of bags. A beffleur is a thief who draws fools into the game. An envoyeur is a murderer. A desrocheur is someone who leaves nothing to the person he robs. … A blanc coulon is someone who sleeps with a merchant or someone else and robs him of his money, his clothes and everything he has, and throws it from the window to his companion, who waits below. A baladeur is someone who rushes ahead to speak to a churchman or someone else to whom he wants to offer a fake golden chain or a fraudulent stone. A pipeur is a player of dice and other games in which there are tricks and treachery. … Fustiller is to change the dice. They call the court of any place the marine or the rouhe. They call the sergeant the gaffres. … A simple man who knows nothing of their ways is a sire or a duppe or a blanc. … A bag is a fellouse. … To do a roy David is to open a lock, a door, a coffer, and to close it again. … To bazir someone is to kill him. … Jour is torture. … When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty from some earnings made somehow from the knowledge of the Shell [their syndicate]. And when he says, ‘Estoffe, ou je faugerey!’ it means that he will betray whoever does not pay his part.

Jean Rabustel, public prosecutor and clerk of the court of the viscountcy of Dijon, wrote in summary, “Every trickery of which they make use has its name in their jargon, and no one could understand it, were he not of their number and compact, or if one of them did not reveal it to another.”

(From Daniel Heller-Roazen, Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, 2013.)


This is unexpected — in 1999 mathematician Mike Keith programmed a computer to generate knights’ tours using Warnsdorff’s rule and then labeled the successive squares A, B, C, etc. to see whether any 8-letter words emerged. After about a million tours, he found two, UNSHAVEN and ARCHIVAL:

M T Q B W D O F   E T W F G J Y H
R C L O P G X C   V E F Y X G T K
U N S H A V E N   S D U H U L I Z
D K P S H Y B U   D G Z K X M L S
Q V G J I T M Z   A R C H I V A L
H E R C F I L A   F C J W N I R M
W D G J Y J A L   Q B A D O P K B
F I X E B K Z K   B E P O J C N Q

After some further searching he also found PERORATE and EPIDURAL. See the link below for more results.

(Michael Keith, “Knight’s Tour Letter Squares,” Word Ways 32:3 [August 1999], 163-168.)

In a Word

Image: Flickr

v. to cover with mud or dirt

adj. covered with mud

v. to dirty with handling

Every regulation major league baseball, roughly 240,000 per season, is rubbed with “magic mud” from a single source, a tributary of the Delaware River. It’s harvested by a single man, 62-year-old Jim Bintliff, who keeps the precise location secret even from Major League Baseball.

“I know the mud,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m the only one on the planet who does.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

Special Measures

Rhymes for unrhymable words, by Willard R. Espy:


It is unth-
inkable to find
A rhyme for month
Except this special kind.


The four eng-
Wore orange


Love’s lost its glow?
No need to lie; j-
ust tell me “Go!”
And I’ll oblige.