Bishop Porteus, whom in all conversations about him George III called the Queen’s Bishop, was asked by her Majesty, at a period when all ladies were employed (when they had nothing better to do) in knotting, whether she might knot on a Sunday. He answered, ‘You may not;’ leaving her Majesty to decide whether, as knot and not were in sound alike, she was, or was not, at liberty so to employ herself on that day.

— Horace Twiss, The Public and Private Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, 1844

For What It’s Worth

In 2015 Keele University historian Paul Booth found evidence of a man named “Roger Fuckbythenavele” in the Chester county court plea rolls of 1310:

County Court of Chester, held on Tuesday after the feast of St Nicholas, 4 Edw. II, before Payn Tibotot, justiciar of Chester (8th December 1310)

A man called ‘Roger Fuckbythenavele’ was exacted for the first time [the process preliminary to outlawry].

TNA CHES 29/23 m 10d

Booth believes that’s the earliest known reference to fuck as a swear word. “This surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”

Humiliatingly, Roger is mentioned seven times by that name in the rolls in 1310 and 1311. The “serjeants of the peace” had been ordered to bring him before the court, but they’d failed to find him, and consequently he was outlawed. Apparently a court clerk gave him the nickname.

(Paul Booth, “An Early Fourteenth-Century Use of the F-word in Cheshire, 1310–11,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 164 [2015], 99–102.)

In a Word


n. a forcible separation; a tearing asunder

n. practical judgment; the faculty of conducting oneself wisely

v. to entreat (a person) earnestly

v. to write back; to write in reply

From Betty’s Weekly, Feb. 19, 1916:

Dear Betty — My boy has been in the trenches for six months, and expects to get furlough any moment. What I want to ask is that, if you were me, would you meet him at the station, or would you wait for him at home?

You ask me a difficult question, little girl, and I find it hard to advise you. Were I you I’d want with all my heart and soul to be the first woman my boy would see when he arrived. And yet, dear, the meeting him after all he’s been through would mean so much to me and to him, too, that I don’t think I could bear to see him in public. Really and truly, were I you, I’d wait for him alone somewhere — at home, if possible. Somehow, such a meeting is too sacred to be witnessed by anybody. But be sure you go to see him off when he leaves for the Front again, and be as brave as you can, dear.

Mankindish Goodgain

In 1989 Poul Anderson wrote a short text using only words of Germanic origin, to show what English might look like if it expressed new concepts using German-style compounds rather than borrowing from other languages. The piece described atomic theory, or “uncleftish beholding”:

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff.

The full text is here. Douglas Hofstadter called this style “Ander-Saxon.”

UPDATE: Apparently there’s a whole wiki for “Anglish,” including recastings of famous texts:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this greatland, a new folkship, dreamt in freedom, and sworn to the forthput that all men are made evenworthy. Now we are betrothed in a great folk-war, testing whether that folkship, or any folkship so born and so sworn, can long withstand. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

(Thanks, Dave.)



Hate and debate Rome through the world hath spread,
Yet Roma amor is, if backward read.
Then is’t not strange Rome hate should foster? No:
For out of backward love all hate doth grow.

— Sir John Harington



Salman Rushdie suggested that if Robert Ludlum had written Hamlet it would be called The Elsinore Vacillation.

Larry Rosenbaum observed that a gigolo is a million million billion piccolos.

The Greek god of theatrical criticism was named Pan.

Most pygmy hippos in American zoos are descended from William Johnson Hippopotamus, a pet given to Calvin Coolidge.


Illinois considers Pluto a planet.

“It is as if children know instinctively that anything wholly solemn, without a smile behind it, is only half alive.” — Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959

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.)