Letter to the Times, June 23, 2000:

Sir, The shortest ambiguous sentence I have come across is a road sign found everywhere in New York. It consists of three words: ‘Fine for Parking.’

But I would not like to argue the point with a New York traffic cop.

Yours faithfully,

House of Lords

10/16/2023 UPDATE: From reader Brieuc de Grangechamps:

schrödinger's dumpster

“English as She Is Pronounced”

The wind was rough
And cold and blough,
She kept her hands within her mough.

It chill’d her through,
Her nose grough blough
And still the squall the faster flough.

And yet although
There was nough snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.

It made her cough —
Pray do not scough! —
She coughed until her hat blew ough.

Ah, you may laugh,
You silly caugh!
I’d like to beat you with my staugh.

Her hat she caught,
And saught and faught
To put it on and tie it taught.

Try as she might
To fix it tight
Again it flew off like a kight,

Away up high
Into the skigh.
The poor girl sat her down to crigh.

She cried till eight
P.M., so leight!
Then home she went at a greight reight.

— J.H. Walton

Pen and Ink
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1980, after 30 years of drawing Beetle Bailey, comic artist Mort Walker published The Lexicon of Comicana, a lighthearted meditation on the many conventions that a reader of comic strips is expected to understand. He calls it a lexicon because he’s made up names for all of them:

  • A grawlix (above) is a string of symbols representing profanity.
  • Emanata are lines surrounding a character’s head to indicate surprise or shock.
  • A lucaflect is the distorted image of a window in a shiny object.
  • Blurgits are blurs of motion within a single panel, to denote frenzied action.
  • Sphericasia are lines tracking motion: a throwatron is a line following a football, a sailatron follows a wandering paper airplane, and a dashed staggeratron follows an intoxicated person. If the motion is particularly fast, these might begin with a dust cloud, called a briffit.
  • Plewds are flying droplets of sweat to indicate stress, hard work, or nerves.
  • An indotherm is a series of wavy lines to indicate rising heat.
  • Vites are fine vertical lines to indicate a shine on a floor. Strangely, a window or mirror bears dites, which are diagonal.

More: a light bulb represents an idea, Zs (or a saw cutting a log) represent snoring, distant birds are inverted Ws, patches denote poverty, all bones are the same shape, all new things have price tags, all injuries require bandages, all paint cans bear drippings. Who invented all these conventions, and how did we all learn to observe them?


Linguist John Quijada designed the experimental language Ithkuil to permit “maximal communication in the most efficient manner”: Cognition processes far more information than natural languages typically express, and natural languages are full of vagueness and ambiguity; Ithkuil tries to express deep levels of cognition precisely while making the speaker’s intent clear.

The results can be striking. The 19-word English phrase “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” can be expressed in two words in Ithkuil. And the passage above reads “As our vehicle leaves the ground and plunges over the edge of the cliff toward the valley floor, I ponder whether it is possible that one might allege I am guilty of an act of moral failure, having failed to maintain a proper course along the roadway.” And both of these expressions indicate the speaker’s full intent directly, where natural languages would tend to leave their full meaning to be inferred.

No one actually speaks Ithkuil — Quijada says he regards it as “an exercise in exploring how human languages could function, not how human languages do function.”

(John Quijada, A Grammar of the Ithkuil Language, 2011.)

North Talk

While we’re at it … in 1973 attorney Mark M. Orkin compiled Canajan, Eh?, a lexicon of Canadian English, which he says is distinguished by “a nimiety of neologisms, an impudicity of pronunciation, a crapulence of grammar, a prurience of syntax, and a necrosis of Mare Canisms”:

ardic: the far north, home of the Esk Moze
beinck: a building where Canajans keep their money
dodder: a female child
fishle: duly authorized
gradge: a building for storing or repairing automobiles
hiss tree: study of past events
Knighted States: the Mare Can nation
Pam Sundy: the Sunday before Easter
quorpus: fifteen minutes past the hour
sign tist: person well-versed in a branch of signs
slong: the principal Canajan salutation on parting
Tronna: the cabbidal of Untario
worsh: to cleanse oneself or one’s clothing
zmarra fack: introductory verbal aid

In his introduction, Orkin writes that “forners need exercise no caution in using this text since all terms discussed will be understandable by somebody somewhere in Canada.” He published a companion volume, French Canajan, hé?, in 1975.

Also: Australian, Baltimorese, Texan.

“The Correct Way to Speak Bristol”

In 1970 Dirk Robson offered Krek Waiter’s Peak Bristle, a pronouncing dictionary for visitors to England’s West Country:

Armchair: Question meaning “What do they cost?” As in: “Armchair yer eat napples, mister?”

Claps: Fall to pieces.

Door: Female child.

Hard tack: Cardiac failure.

Justice Swell: Expression of right and proper behaviour; as in: “No, we dingo way, we stay dome. Justice swell — trained all week.”

Rifle: Deserving.

Sill Sernt: Government employee.

Sunny’s Cool: Bible class for the young.

Yerp: The Continent.

Examples from the field:

News vendor: “Snow end twit! Miniature rout of yes-dees news, yore rupture rise into daze!”

Patron: “Sway lie fizz, knit?”


Woman at bus stop: “Fortify mince we bin stand near! Chews 2B bad, butts pasta joke now.”

Her companion: “Feud Dunce eye sedden walk tome, weed bin thereby now.”

Robson put out a companion volume, Son of Bristle, the following year, “with a special section on the famous Bristle ‘L.'” I’ll see if I can find that.

09/09/2023 UPDATE: Here’s the Bristol L:

(Thanks, Rob.)

In a Word

adj. pleasant

adj. terrified

adj. causing something to be present in the mind

n. a bad choice of words

Shortly after physicist Anthony French joined the MIT faculty in 1962, he was asked to teach an introductory mechanics course to hundreds of freshmen.

“I wanted to be cautious about giving it a name,” he said. “So I called it, blandly, ‘Physics: A New Introductory Course.’

“I couldn’t imagine how I could have been so stupid. The students read that as ‘PANIC’ … it was known forever afterwards as the PANIC course.”

Spun Wool
Image: Flickr

The wordplay journal Word Ways has made a tradition of revising the familiar rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” under various constraints. Some examples:

Alliteration: James Puder, WW February 1998

Astral Aries’ avatar, alabaster “Aly,”
Ann adopted; allies are Ann and Ann’s argali.
Ann, an able autodidact, academic angst avoids;
And arch Aly’s Argus-eyed act awes astonished anthropoids.

Pangram (uses all 26 letters): A. Ross Eckler, WW February 1989

Mary had a little lamb with fleece extremely white;
Instead of grazing, all alone, the lamb kept her in sight.
It followed her to school one day, which was against the rule;
The children thought it quite a joke to view a lamb in school.

Words formed of chemical element symbols: WW February 2008

In ClAsS ONe MoRn SHe TaKEs HEr PLaCe; TeAcHEr CrIEs “SHoO! RUN!”
HeAr THoSe LaSSiEs ScReAm “HoW CuTe!” ThIS AgNUS — PURe FUN!”

Four-letter words: Dave Morice, WW November 2006

Mary kept some tiny lamb with wool hued just like snow,
Each spot that this girl, Mary, went, that lamb went also (slow).
Once lamb went past home room with girl. That bent some rule last year.
This made kids loud, glad, made them play: they eyed lamb very near.

Three-letter and shorter words: Jeff Grant, WW May 2004

Amy had an ewe so wee, it was an icy hue,
And any way our Amy led, the ewe it did go too.
It ran in to her den one day (an act not in the law).
Oh, the fun for boy and gal! The ewe so wee all saw.