A Mouthful

In 1854, a correspondent wrote to Notes and Queries asking about the origins of this couplet:

Perturbabantur Constantinopolitani
Innumerabilibus sollicitudinibus.

[“Constantinople is much perturbed.”]

He got this reply:

“When I first learned to scan verses, somewhere about thirty years ago, the lines produced by your correspondent P. were in every child’s mouth, with this story attached to them. It was said that Oxford had received from Cambridge the first line of the distich, with a challenge to produce a corresponding line consisting of two words only. To this challenge Oxford replied by sending back the second line, pointing out, at the same time, the false quantity in the word Constantinŏpolitani.”


Reader Eliot Morrison, a protein biochemist, has been looking for the longest English word found in the human proteome — the full set of proteins that can be expressed by the human body. Proteins are chains composed of amino acids, and the most common 20 are represented by the letters A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, and Y. “These amino acids have different chemical properties,” Eliot writes, “and the sequence influences how the whole chain folds in three dimensions, which in turn determines the structural and functional properties of the protein.”

The longest English word he’s found is TARGETEER, at nine letters, in the uncharacterized protein C12orf42. The whole sequence of C12orf42 is:


And there are more: “There are also a number of eight-letters words found: ASPARKLE (Uniprot code: Q86UW7), DATELESS (Q9ULP0-3), GALAGALA (Q86VD7), GRISETTE (Q969Y0), MISSPEAK (Q8WXH0), REELRALL (Q96FL8), RELASTER (Q8IVB5), REVERSAL (Q5TZA2), and SLAVERER (Q2TAC2).” I wonder if there’s a sentence in us somewhere.

(Thanks, Eliot.)

Lingua Franca

In the 11th century, sailors in the Mediterranean developed a pidgin language to communicate with one another, a mix of Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Occitan, French, Latin, English, and other languages in which they could conduct trade and diplomacy. Known as Sabir, it appears briefly in Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme when the Mufti sings:

Se ti sabir
Ti respondir
Se non sabir
Tazir, tazir

Mi star Mufti:
Ti qui star ti?
Non intendir:
Tazir, tazir.

This means:

If you know
You answer
If you do not know
Be silent, be silent

I am Mufti
Who are you?
If you do not understand,
Be silent, be silent

The language persisted into the 19th century, and traces of it can still be found in modern slang and in geographical names.

In a Word

adj. smelling of insects

adj. smelling like a goat

adj. smelling sweet

adj. smelling like garlic or onions

adj. stinking

adj. having a well-developed sense of smell


Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • Mr. Peanut’s full name is Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smythe.
  • Michael J. Fox is 10 days younger than Lea Thompson and 3 years older than Crispin Glover.
  • Nebraska’s state slogan is “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
  • Eight-letter words typed with eight fingers: BIPLANES, CAPTIONS, ELAPSING, JACKPOTS, LIFESPAN, PANELIST.
  • “Memory can restore to life everything except smells.” — Nabokov

For Short


Dr. Dobbin, lecturing on physical education in Hull, England, condemned the practice of tight-lacing as injurious to the health and symmetry of the female sex, and jocularly proposed the formation of an ‘Anti-killing-young-women-by-a-lingering-death Society.’

This was gravely reproduced in other parts of England and on the Continent as a sober matter of fact, the Germans giving the hyphenated title thus: Jungefrauenzimmerdurchschwindsuchttodtungsgegenverein.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, The Book of Blunders, 1871

500 Entertaining Words

The 12th edition of The Chambers Dictionary, published in 2011, highlighted about 500 words that the editors considered especially entertaining. For the 13th edition, in 2014, they chose to remove the highlighting but inadvertently removed the entries entirely.

The missing entries have since been reinstated, but in the interval the publishers supplied a list of the missing words. Here it is.

(Thanks, Chris.)

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.