Dash It All

In “Freaks of the Telegraph,” an 1881 article in Blackwood’s Magazine, Charles Lewes points out that in Morse code the words BAD (-… .- -..) and DEAD (-.. . .- -..) differ only by the space between the D and E in DEAD.

This could result in a sentence such as MOTHER WAS BAD BUT NOW RECOVERED being interpreted strangely as MOTHER WAS DEAD BUT NOW RECOVERED. “Of course, in this case a telegraph operator (short of believing in zombies) would likely notice something was amiss and ask for confirmation of the message — or else attempt to correct it himself,” writes N. Katherine Hayles in How We Think.

But correcting it himself could lead to further misunderstandings. Lewes gives one example: “A lady, some short time since, telegraphed, ‘Send them both thanks,’ by which she meant, ‘Thank you; send them both’ — (the ‘both’ referred to two servants). The telegram reached its destination as ‘Send them both back,’ thus making sense as the official mind would understand it, but a complete perversion of the meaning of the writer.”

Simple Terms

In 1860 Manchester layman J. Gill wrote “a sermon in words of one syllable only”:

He who wrote the Psalm in which our text is found, had great cause to both bless and praise God; for he had been brought from a low state to be a great king in a great land; had been made wise to rule the land in the fear and truth of God; and all his foes were, at the time he wrote, at peace with him. Though he had been poor, he was now rich in this world’s goods; though his youth had been spent in the care of sheep, he now wore a crown; and though it had been his lot for a long time to hear the din of war and strife, peace now dwelt round the throne, and the land had rest.

The whole thing is here. “This Sermon … is offered to the public with the view of showing that at least big words are not necessary for the conveyance of great truths to the minds of the people,” he wrote in a preface. “[I have] an ambition to prove that, in the advocacy of religious truth, very plain, simple, and old-fashioned words have not yet lost their original force and significance.”


The Coquillars, a 16th-century company of French bandits, created “an exquisite language” “that other people cannot understand”:

A crocheteur is someone who picks locks. A vendegeur is a snatcher of bags. A beffleur is a thief who draws fools into the game. An envoyeur is a murderer. A desrocheur is someone who leaves nothing to the person he robs. … A blanc coulon is someone who sleeps with a merchant or someone else and robs him of his money, his clothes and everything he has, and throws it from the window to his companion, who waits below. A baladeur is someone who rushes ahead to speak to a churchman or someone else to whom he wants to offer a fake golden chain or a fraudulent stone. A pipeur is a player of dice and other games in which there are tricks and treachery. … Fustiller is to change the dice. They call the court of any place the marine or the rouhe. They call the sergeant the gaffres. … A simple man who knows nothing of their ways is a sire or a duppe or a blanc. … A bag is a fellouse. … To do a roy David is to open a lock, a door, a coffer, and to close it again. … To bazir someone is to kill him. … Jour is torture. … When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty from some earnings made somehow from the knowledge of the Shell [their syndicate]. And when he says, ‘Estoffe, ou je faugerey!’ it means that he will betray whoever does not pay his part.

Jean Rabustel, public prosecutor and clerk of the court of the viscountcy of Dijon, wrote in summary, “Every trickery of which they make use has its name in their jargon, and no one could understand it, were he not of their number and compact, or if one of them did not reveal it to another.”

(From Daniel Heller-Roazen, Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, 2013.)


This is unexpected — in 1999 mathematician Mike Keith programmed a computer to generate knights’ tours using Warnsdorff’s rule and then labeled the successive squares A, B, C, etc. to see whether any 8-letter words emerged. After about a million tours, he found two, UNSHAVEN and ARCHIVAL:

M T Q B W D O F   E T W F G J Y H
R C L O P G X C   V E F Y X G T K
U N S H A V E N   S D U H U L I Z
D K P S H Y B U   D G Z K X M L S
Q V G J I T M Z   A R C H I V A L
H E R C F I L A   F C J W N I R M
W D G J Y J A L   Q B A D O P K B
F I X E B K Z K   B E P O J C N Q

After some further searching he also found PERORATE and EPIDURAL. See the link below for more results.

(Michael Keith, “Knight’s Tour Letter Squares,” Word Ways 32:3 [August 1999], 163-168.)

In a Word

Image: Flickr

v. to cover with mud or dirt

adj. covered with mud

v. to dirty with handling

Every regulation major league baseball, roughly 240,000 per season, is rubbed with “magic mud” from a single source, a tributary of the Delaware River. It’s harvested by a single man, 62-year-old Jim Bintliff, who keeps the precise location secret even from Major League Baseball.

“I know the mud,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m the only one on the planet who does.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

Special Measures

Rhymes for unrhymable words, by Willard R. Espy:


It is unth-
inkable to find
A rhyme for month
Except this special kind.


The four eng-
Wore orange


Love’s lost its glow?
No need to lie; j-
ust tell me “Go!”
And I’ll oblige.

Whole Story

breakaway table

Shopping at a mall one afternoon, Dave Morice and his son Danny came across a set of poseable wrestling action figures. One accessory was a breakaway table that came in two jagged halves. The store had a policy that allowed customers to return a broken toy for one that wasn’t broken.

Morice said, “Now here’s a problem. The table comes broken in two. If it wasn’t broken, then it would be broken. In either case, it’s broken.”

Danny said, “Yeah! That means we can take it back any time for a brand-new one.”

“That’s another problem,” Morice said. “They couldn’t replace it with one that wasn’t broken.”

(From Word Ways.)

In a Word


n. love of money

n. hoarding of money; miserliness

adj. greedy, avaricious

adj. excessively covetous, avaricious, or greedy