In 2011 I published a list of unusual American girls’ names collected by H.L. Mencken in his magisterial study The American Language. I should have gone back for the boys’ names:

  • Allmouth
  • Anvil
  • Arson
  • Centurlius
  • Cho-Wella
  • Clarmond
  • Cluke
  • Comma
  • Crellon
  • Cyclone
  • Doke
  • Elesten
  • Elgne
  • Elvcyd
  • Felmet
  • Florns
  • Habert
  • Harce
  • Human
  • Jat
  • Kark
  • Kleo Murl
  • Koith
  • Lig
  • Loarn
  • Mord
  • Murt
  • Quannah
  • Rephord
  • Terbert
  • Thrantham
  • Torl
  • Valourd
  • Virgle
  • Yick
  • Zelmer
  • Zurr

“In Connecticut, a generation or two ago, there was a politico surnamed Bill whose given-names were Kansas Nebraska. He had brothers named Lecompton Constitution and Emancipation Proclamation, and sisters named Louisiana Purchase and Missouri Compromise.”

(H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement 2, 1948.)

Roll Call

Unusual names of real people, collected by author John Train:

  • A.A.A. D’Artagnan Umslopagaas Dynamite Macaulay
  • Arizona Zipper
  • Atomic Zagnut Adams
  • Badman Trouble
  • Bumpus McPhumpus Angeledes
  • Cardiac Arrest da Silva
  • Cashmere Tango Obedience
  • Charles Everybodytalksabout, Jr.
  • C. Sharp Minor
  • Demetrius Toodles
  • Dennis Elbow
  • E. Pluribus Eubanks
  • Fortunate Tarte
  • Henry Will Burst
  • Pepsi Cola Atom-Bomb Washington
  • Marmalade P. Vestibule
  • Rebecca Hammering Bang
  • Roosevelt Cabbagestalk
  • Sara Struggles Nicely
  • Serious Misconduct
  • Trailing Arbutus Vines
  • Warren Peace
  • Zip A-Dee-Doo Daub

Twins: Anarchy and Utopia; A.C. and D.C.; Bigamy and Larceny; Pete and Repeat

Further odd names, collected from various sources.

Twice True

Each of these sums is valid in two ways, once when the words at taken at their face value and again when each letter is interpreted as a particular digit:

   THREE    79322           ONE       483       ZERO   4206      TRECE  69858
    NINE     6562          FIVE      7293        SEI    827      CINCO  57354
     TEN      726           TEN       138      SETTE  82112       OCHO   4504
FOURTEEN 40837226        ELEVEN    363938       OTTO   6116       ----   ----
 FIFTEEN  4547226      NINETEEN  82831338       NOVE   9652     QUINCE 127358
 -------  -------     FORTYFIVE 745107293       ----   ----       ONCE   4358
FIFTYONE 45471062     --------- ---------     TRENTA 102913
                      NINETYONE 828310483

All are from the Journal of Recreational Mathematics, collected by Leonard Gordon in “Doubly-True Alphametics,” Word Ways 27:1 [February 1994], 10-12. More alphametics.

In a Word

n. a leisurely walk

In the ancient world, distances were sometimes measured by pacing. Specialists known as bematists were employed for this purpose in both Egypt and Greece, and their accuracy could be startling: In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder notes that two bematists employed by Alexander the Great had measured the distance from Hecatompylos to Alexandria Areion on the Silk Road at 851 kilometers. The actual distance is 855 kilometers, a deviation of just 0.4 percent. In general, according to Pliny’s records, Alexander’s bematists showed a median deviation of just 2.8 percent from the true distances; a separate account by Strabo shows a median deviation of only 1.9 percent.

This accuracy suggests that the bematists may have been using an early odometer, such as one described by Heron of Alexandria, though the records don’t mention this.

12/30/2023 UPDATE: Reader Charlotte Fare has made a data visualization. (Thanks, Charlotte.)

“Sonnet With a Different Letter at the End of Every Line”

O for a muse of fire, a sack of dough,
Or both! O promissory notes of woe!
One time in Santa Fe N.M.
Ol’ Winfield Townley Scott and I … But whoa.

One can exert oneself, ff,
Or architect a heaven like Rimbaud,
Or if that seems, how shall I say, de trop,
One can at least write sonnets, a propos
Of nothing save the do-re-mi-fa-sol
Of poetry itself. Is not the row
Of perfect rhymes, the terminal bon mot,
Obeisance enough to the Great O?

“Observe,” said Chairman Mao to Premier Chou,
“On voyage à Parnasse pour prendre les eaux.
On voyage comme poisson
, incog.”

— George Starbuck

Hand Talk

In the 19th century, Native Americans from central Canada to northern Mexico could communicate using Plains Indian Sign Language, a lingua franca that facilitated trading, hunting, storytelling, and warfare between speakers of different languages. It’s estimated that in 1885 more than 110,000 indigenous people were familiar with the signs. Today only a few dozen fluent signers remain, though efforts are afoot to preserve the language.

Above: In September 1930, U.S. Army general Hugh L. Scott attended the Indian Sign Language Grand Council, an intertribal gathering of indigenous leaders convened to document and preserve PISL.

Second Thoughts


Pleasantly red-brick Georgian in aspect like most of the others, [Harvard dormitory] Dunster House celebrates the memory of Henry Dunster, the first fully designated president of Harvard. … According to legend, the intention had been to name the original seven houses for Harvard presidents in their order of succession, a design that faltered when it came to the notable Dr. Leonard Hoar, who came to this distinguished post in 1672. … Hoar House had an indelicacy of address that, even in the service of history, Harvard could not abide.

— John Kenneth Galbraith, A Tenured Professor, 1990

In a Word

n. a head of hair

adj. hidden

n. a writing intended to exhort or instruct

v. to imbue with revolutionary spirit

For Histiaeus, when he was anxious to give Aristagoras orders to revolt, could find but one safe way, as the roads were guarded, of making his wishes known; which was by taking the trustiest of his slaves, shaving all the hair from off his head, and then pricking letters upon the skin, and waiting till the hair grew again. Thus accordingly he did; and as soon as ever the hair was grown, he despatched the man to Miletus, giving him no other message than this — ‘When thou art come to Miletus, bid Aristagoras shave thy head, and look thereon.’ Now the marks on the head, as I have already mentioned, were a command to revolt.

— Herodotus, Terpsichore