In a Word

adj. taking place after death

v. to lay in the grave

n. a door

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

Has Beens

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.”

(“By Induction,” Eureka 18 [November 1955], 14. See Over and Out.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.)

Say It With Flowers

The lost art of floriography assigned meanings to flowers so that lovers could exchange messages with “talking bouquets.” In his 1839 Language of Flowers, English journalist Frederic Shoberl rendered an entire verse by French poet Évariste de Parny as the combination of 16 flowers:

Aimer est un destin charmant,
C’est un bonheur qui nous enivre,
Et qui produit l’enchantement.
Avoir aimé, c’est ne plus vivre,
Hélas! c’est avoir acheté
Cette accablante vérité,
Que les serments sont un mensonge,
Que l’amour trompe tôt ou tard,
Que l’innocence n’est qu’un art,
Et que le bonheur n’est qu’un songe.

“It may be thus rendered: ‘To love is a pleasure, a happiness, which intoxicates; to love no longer, is to live no longer; it is to have bought this sad truth, that innocence is falsehood, that love is an art, and that happiness is a dream.'”

On The Ice

Unusual words used in Antarctica, from Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctic Dictionary (2000):

antarcticitis: a yearning for Antarctica
beachmastership: the territorial dominance of a breeding seal
degomble: to disencumber of snow
diomedeicide: the killing of an albatross
dogloo: an igloo for a dog
fingee: “fucking new guy”
frozen chosen: those who work in Antarctica
ice widow: a woman whose husband is in Antarctica
pinnipedophage: one who eats seal meat
polar ennui: a darkness of the soul in the polar night
snotsicle: a thread of frozen mucus suspended from the nose
sphenisciphile: a lover of penguins
unweka’d: unaffected by weka birds
whale-sick: depressed by a lack of whales to hunt

Some entries are almost moving: greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants after spending some time in antarctic regions.”

(Jeff Grant, who reviewed this book for Word Ways in 2005, points out that the first entry, AAAAAH, surpasses AAAATAMAD in W.R. Cooper’s 1876 An Archaic Dictionary as alphabetically the first published dictionary entry containing a consonant. It’s a sled dog command meaning “halt.”)


In 1711, Belgian abbott Lucas de Vriese filled an unpublished book with 3,100 anagrams composed on phrases taken from the Latin version of the Bible. Page 81 is called the “echo page,” because the first word of each line echoes the last word of the preceding line. Each line is an anagram of the opening sentence of “Hail Mary”: Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee) occurring in Luke 1:28. Impressively, the whole thing is also an acrostic — taking the first letter of each line spells out the original quotation:

Amacula ter munda, ita per omnia viges.
Viges, enormi mulcta Adami pura enata.
Enata Malis pura vige, ac merito Munda.

Munda Mater emicas, o pura Geniti Aula.
Aula Dei micat, nota summe pura, Regina.
Regina, o Tu pura macula, et Dia Immensa.
Immensa, o Tu diva integre pura ac alma.
Alma ter unice pura Summa io Dei Gnata.

Gnata Dei, pura es communi a Mali reatu.
Reatu magno pura, micat sine lue Adami.
Adami sine omni macula pura, rege tuta.
Tuta o pergas alma ac nimia munda jure.
Iure mero Genita munda a culpis, Amata.
Amata veni Summa Regina, delicto pura.

Pura et ter divina o gemmas, Amica luna.
Luna pura (mira dico) Agni Stemmate Eva.
Eva, i matris culpa e gremio munda nata.
Nata maledicti pura, o vere Summi Agna.
Agna Coeli summa, et Avi ter pura damni.

Damni tu pura Regia es, et a macula omni.
Omni reatu, ac Avi plagis e matre munda.
Munda tu pia merito maculae es ignara.
Ignara culpae mera, o Summi Tu Dei Nata
Nata Pura Medica, et gloria Summa veni.
Veni multa munda, Pia et a gremio Sacra.
Sacra nimie munda, alme pura vige tota.

Tota piaculis munda mera, germina Eva.
Eva o simul prima et munda genita, Cara.
Cara, imo Summi Nata, et digne pura, vale.
Vale, o mendi pura Mater, ac Vitis Magna.
Magna, o sic pura ad literam, vive. Amen.

Here’s a rough translation, from City University of Hong Kong mathematician Felipe Cucker’s Manifold Mirrors: The Crossing Paths of the Arts and Mathematics:

Thrice clean from stain, that is why you blossom.
You blossom after being born free of Adam’s great curse.
Born of sinners, you blossom pure and clean, due to your own merit.

Clean you shine, Mother, oh pure Temple of the Only Begotten Son.
God’s Temple shines, famous for its great purity, oh Queen.
Oh Queen, you who are free of stain, incommensurable Divine.
Oh incommensurable, you are divine, immaculately pure and nourishing.
Nourishing, thrice peerlessly pure, oh greatest daughter of God.

Daughter of God, you are free from original sin.
Free from the greatest sin, you shine free from Adam’s curse.
Pure, clean of Adam’s stain, protected queen.
Continue protected, oh nourishing and so justly clean.
Justly Daughter free from guilt, Beloved.
Come, oh Beloved, greatest Queen, free from guilt.

Pure and thrice divine, you are adorned with gems, oh loving moon.
Pure moon (I speak of marvelous deeds), Eve of the Lamb’s lineage.
Eve, go, born free from guilt in her mother’s womb.
Born free from blame, truly Lamb of the Highest.
Greatest Lamb of Heaven and thrice free from the Ancestor’s harm.

You, oh, Queen, are free from harm and from stain.
From all sin and from the Ancestor’s calamities you are free since birth.
Clean through your own merit pious, you have not known any stain.
Merely ignorant of the guilt, oh you, born from God the Highest.
Born Pure, Healer, come also oh Highest in glory.
Come clean from punishment, Pious and Holy from your mother’s womb.
Sacred, mightily clean, motherly pure, you live protected.

Bloom protected, you, the only one clean from expiatory punishment, Eve.
Oh Eve, first born as well as clean, Beloved.
Beloved, truly born from the Highest and fittingly pure, be strong.
Be strong, oh Mother free from fault, and Great Vineyard.
Great, oh truly pure, live. Amen.

(Via Walter Begley’s Biblia Anagrammatica, or, The Anagramatic Bible, 1904.)

In a Word

v. “to spurne with the heele” (from Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionarie of 1623)

adj. pertaining to dancing

Any stranger behind the scenes at Her Majesty’s Theatre on the opening night of Adeline Genée and the Imperial Russian Ballet would have been amazed (stated The Melbourne Age on Monday) at a little incident that was enacted just before Mlle. Genée made her entrance from the wings. Mr. Hugh Ward approached the great dancer, and, raising his foot, kicked her on the leg. The astonishment would have increased on it being noticed that Mlle. Genée, far from being incensed at this apparent liberty, was greatly pleased at it, and rippled with laughter. Mlle. Genée explained the incident in this way. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘while I am not exactly over-superstitious, there are still some little things I pay regard to, and one of them is that before I make my first appearance anywhere I must be given a ‘good luck kick’ prior to making my entrance. I mentioned this jokingly to Mr. Ward when I arrived in Sydney, and he said it would give him the greatest pleasure to present me with the lucky kick on the opening night of the season. So he has come all the way from Sydney to do so.’

— Adelaide Register, June 25, 1913

A Word for Everything

In the 17th century natural philosopher John Wilkins set out to create a universal language for scholars, to replace Latin, whose sometimes arbitrary features made it difficult to learn. His solution, laid out in the 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character, is a system of symbols that could classify every thing and idea in the world, somewhat like the Linnaean system in biology. There are 40 main genera, each of which supplies the first two letters of a word. Each genus is divided into “differences,” which supply the next letter. And a “species” gives the fourth letter. So, for example, Zi indicates the genus “beasts,” or mammals; Zit specifies the difference “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; and Zita gives the species “dogs.” The symbols weren’t necessarily meant to be spoken, though Wilkins later assigned phonetic values to the various characters — rather they were meant to provide an unambiguous way of classifying the world so that scholars (and, perhaps, diplomats, travelers, and merchants) could communicate clearly.

Wilkins presented the system to the Royal Society, who were impressed but concluded that it was impractical — its descriptions of similar (and confusable) items might differ by a single letter, and it would be difficult to remember all the distinctions, which seemed to invite trouble. Borges later lampooned it with his (fictional) Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

(Thanks, Alex.)

In a Word

adj. suitable for felling (as a tree)

Lumberjack argot, from L.G. Sorden and Jacque Vallier’s Lumberjack Lingo, 1986:

two streaks of rust: a logging railroad
cougar milk: Prohibition-era woods liquor
quinine jimmy: a camp doctor
bunch it: to quit work
kegging up: getting drunk
tree squeak: an imaginary bird to which the noise made by trees rubbing together was attributed
she’s a rainbow: What a day!
house of hesitation: a jail
traveling dandruff: lice
iron burner: the camp blacksmith
sawdust city: Eau Claire, Wisconsin

“It’s five a.m. and the gabriel blows. The bark eaters fall out of their muzzle loaders and head for the chuck house to bolt down a pile of stovelids with lots of blackstrap, some fried murphys or Johnny cake and maybe some logging berries. They dunk their rolling stock into their jerk water, growl at the hash slinger, pull up their galluses and head for the tall timber.”

In Brief

In 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt endorsed a plan to simplify the spelling of difficult words, Englishman Harry Graham offered a scheme of his own:

When Theo: Roos: unfurled his bann:
As Pres: of an immense Repub:
And sought to manufact: a plan
For saving people troub:
His mode of spelling (termed phonet:)
Affec: my brain like an emet:

And I evolved a scheme (pro tem.)
To simplify my mother-tongue,
That so in fame I might resem:
Upt: Sinc:, who wrote “The Jung:”
And rouse an interest enorm:
In conversational reform.

I grudge the time my fellows waste
Completing words that are so comm:
Wherever peop: of cult: and taste
Habitually predom:
‘Twould surely tend to simpli: life
Could they but be curtailed a trif:

For is not “Brev: the soul of Wit”?
(Inscribe this mott: upon your badge)
The sense will never suff: a bit,
If left to the imag:
Since any pers: can see what’s meant
By words so simp: as “husb:” or “gent:”

When at some meal (at dinn: for inst:)
You hand your unc: an empty plate,
Or ask your aunt (that charming spinst:)
To pass you the potat:,
They have too much sagac:, I trust,
To give you sug: or pepp: or must:

If you require a slice of mutt:
You’ll find the selfsame princ: hold good,
Nor get, instead of bread and butt:,
Some tapioca pudd:,
Nor vainly bid some boon-compan:
Replen: with Burg: his vacant can.

At golf, if your oppon: should ask
Why in a haz: your nib: is sunk,
And you explain your fav’rite Hask:
Lies buried in a bunk:,
He cannot very well misund:
That you (poor fooz:) have made a blund:

If this is prob: — nay, even cert: —
My scheme at once becomes attrac:
And I (pray pard: a litt: impert:)
A public benefac:
Who saves his fellow-man and neighb:
A deal of quite unnecess: lab:

Gent: Reader, if to me you’ll list:
And not be irritab: or peev:,
You’ll find it of tremend: assist:
This habit of abbrev:,
Which grows like some infec: disease,
Like chron: paral: or German meas:

And ev’ry living human bipe:
Will feel his heart grow grate: and warm
As he becomes the loy: discip:
Of my partic: reform,
(Which don’t confuse with that, I beg,
Of Brander Matth: or And: Carneg:)

“”T is not in mort: to comm: success,”
As Shakes: remarked; but if my meth:
Does something to dimin: or less:
The expend: of public breath,
My country, overcome with grat:,
Should in my hon: erect a stat:

My bust by Rod: (what matt: the cost?)
Shall be exhib:, devoid of charge,
With (in the Public Lib: at Bost:)
My full-length port: by Sarge:
That thous: from Pitts: or Wash: may swarm
To worsh: the Found: of this Reform.

Meanwhile I seek with some avid:
The fav: of your polite consid: