Shop Talk

Between 1976 and 1978, C.J. Scheiner compiled a list of pejoratives that medical personnel used to describe patients in a large New York hospital:

  • dispo (“disposition problem”): a patient admitted to the hospital with no real medical problem apart from being unable to care for himself
  • ethanolic: alcoholic
  • fruit salad: a group of stroke patients unable to care for themselves
  • gork: a mentally deficient patient
  • gun and rifle club: a trauma ward for stabbing and gunshot victims
  • International House of Pancakes: a neurology ward for patients (often stroke victims) who babble in different languages
  • pits: a medical screening area, often with a large number of insignificant maladies
  • P.O.S. (“piece of shit”): a patient who’s medically ill because of his own failure to care for himself (“most often alcoholics”). A “sub-human piece of shit” (SHPOS) is a critically ill patient who is rehabilitated and then must be readmitted after failing to follow medical instructions.
  • P.P. (“professional patient”): a frequent emergency room visitor with chronic symptoms that are never present at the time of examination
  • quack: a patient who fakes symptoms to get drugs or hospitalization
  • Saturday Night Special: a patient who has spent his money and arrives at the hospital on a weekend hoping for a meal and a place to stay
  • stage mother: an adult who coaches young patients as to their symptoms and states what tests and procedures are needed

“This study is not in any way exhaustive, and does not include many terms used possibly in various specialty areas of this particular hospital, and certainly not all the terms used in various hospitals in or outside of New York.”

(C.J. Scheiner, “Common Patient-Directed Pejoratives Used by Medical Personnel,” Maledicta 2 [Summer/Winter 1978], 67-70.)

Sharp Wit

In his 1869 French rendering of Alice in Wonderland, Henri Bué found a uniquely felicitous way to translate a pun. Here’s the original:

‘If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does.’

‘Which would not be an advantage,’ said Alice … ‘Just think what work it would make with the day and night! You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis –‘

‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head.’

Bué couldn’t reproduce the pun using the French word for ax (hache), but he came up with this:

‘Si chacun s’occupait de ses affaires,’ dit la Duchesse avec un grognement rauque, ‘le mond n’en irait que mieux.’

‘Ce qui ne serait guère avantageux,’ dit Alice … ‘Songez à ce que deviendraient le jour et la nuit; vous voyez bien, la terre met vingt-quatre heures à faire sa révolution.’

‘Ah! vous parlez de faire des révolutions!’ dit la Duchesse. ‘Qu’on lui coupe la tête!’

In The Astonishment of Words, Victor Proetz writes, “Here Bué — with a stroke of wizardry and judgment which, in this instance, is not translation by word, but translation by change of word — has instantaneously transformed a witty English idea in its entirety into a perfectly parallel, equally witty French idea. And when ‘the Duchess’ changes into ‘la Duchesse,’ the axe, by association, becomes a guillotine.”

Subvick Quarban

In studying the relationship between brain function and language, University of Alberta psychologist Chris Westbury found that people agree nearly unanimously as to the funniness of nonsense words. Some of the words predicted to be most humorous in his study:

howaymb, quingel, finglam, himumma, probble, proffin, prounds, prothly, dockles, compide, mervirs, throvic, betwerv

It seems that the less statistically likely a collection of letters is to form a real word in English, the funnier it strikes us. Why should that be? Possibly laughter signals to ourselves and others that we’ve recognized that something is amiss but that it’s not a danger to our safety.

(Chris Westbury et al., “Telling the World’s Least Funny Jokes: On the Quantification of Humor as Entropy,” Journal of Memory and Language 86 [2016], 141–156.)


sallows self-descriptive rectangle tiling

Lee Sallows sent this self-descriptive rectangle tiling: The grid catalogs its own contents by arranging its 70 letters and 14 spaces into 14 itemizing phrases.

Bonus: The rectangle measures 7 × 12, which is commemorated by the two strips that meet in the top left-hand corner. And “The author’s signature is also incorporated.”

(Thanks, Lee!)

In a Word

n. the state of being ignorant

v. to disembarrass; to disencumber from anything that embarrasses

n. a substitute

v. to please, gratify, delight

A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.

Current Literature, August 1893

UPDATE: Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins wrote an English phonetic version (not a translation) of the Welsh national anthem, so that Welsh people who don’t speak Welsh can join in:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree,
Glad barks and centurions throw dogs in the sea,
My guru asked Elvis and brandished Dan’s flan,
Don’s muddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad, Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When oars appear, on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

I’m told this sounds convincing when sung with a Welsh accent in a crowd. Maybe they should just adopt these lyrics outright!

(Thanks, John.)

11/11/2018 In Sweden there’s a story that drought-stricken Scanian peasants assailed Queen Desideria with cries of Vi vill ha regn! (“We want rain!”) — the French-born queen was perplexed to hear “Vive la Reine!” (Thanks, Martin.)

Nothing to Say

Early American radio producers discovered that they could create a convincing crowd sound by having a group of actors repeat the word walla over and over. This technique is still sometimes used in film and TV productions — besides walla, actors sometimes mutter “peas and carrots,” “watermelon cantaloupe,” “natter natter,” or “grommish grommish.” In Europe the word rhubarb is often used.

British comedian Eric Sykes’ 1980 television special Rhubarb Rhubarb plays with this idea by removing all other dialogue: Sykes relies almost entirely on sight gags, and the scant spoken dialogue consists of people saying the word rhubarb. The 1980 program was a remake of Sykes’ 1969 film Rhubarb, which presses this conceit even further: Everyone says “rhubarb,” all the characters are named Rhubarb, car license plates read RHU BAR B, and a baby speaks by holding up a sign that says RHUBARB. “A visual gag,” said Sykes, “is worth three pages of dialogue.”

A Palindromic Pan

Guido Nazzo, an Italian tenor of the 1930s, sang only once in New York and received but one review: ‘Guido Nazzo: nazzo guido.’

— Willard R. Espy, Another Almanac of Words at Play, 1981

Tech Talk
Image: Ozan Kilic

In 2017 research scientist Janelle Shane tried to train a neural network to name kittens:

Snox Boops
Jexley Pickle
Toby Booch
Big Wiggy Bool
Mr Whinkles
Licky Cat
Mr Bincheh
Maxy Fay
Mr Gruffles
Liony Oli
Lasley Goo
Mag Jeggles
Mara Tatters
Mush Jam
Mr. Jubble

Bonus: At one point she accidentally trained the network on a dataset of character names from Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other fantasy authors and got Jarlag, Mankith, Andend of Karlans, and Mr. Yetheract. See the full list.