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.)

Inventory

sallows self-descriptive rectangle tiling

Lee Sallows sent this self-descriptive rectangle tiling: The grid catalogs its own contents by arranging its 70 letters and 14 spaces into 14 itemizing phrases.

Bonus: The rectangle measures 7 × 12, which is commemorated by the two strips that meet in the top left-hand corner. And “The author’s signature is also incorporated.”

(Thanks, Lee!)

In a Word

ignoration
n. the state of being ignorant

debarrass
v. to disembarrass; to disencumber from anything that embarrasses

succedaneum
n. a substitute

arride
v. to please, gratify, delight

A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.

Current Literature, August 1893

UPDATE: Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins wrote an English phonetic version (not a translation) of the Welsh national anthem, so that Welsh people who don’t speak Welsh can join in:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree,
Glad barks and centurions throw dogs in the sea,
My guru asked Elvis and brandished Dan’s flan,
Don’s muddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad, Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When oars appear, on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

I’m told this sounds convincing when sung with a Welsh accent in a crowd. Maybe they should just adopt these lyrics outright!

(Thanks, John.)

Nothing to Say

Early American radio producers discovered that they could create a convincing crowd sound by having a group of actors repeat the word walla over and over. This technique is still sometimes used in film and TV productions — besides walla, actors sometimes mutter “peas and carrots,” “watermelon cantaloupe,” “natter natter,” or “grommish grommish.” In Europe the word rhubarb is often used.

British comedian Eric Sykes’ 1980 television special Rhubarb Rhubarb plays with this idea by removing all other dialogue: Sykes relies almost entirely on sight gags, and the scant spoken dialogue consists of people saying the word rhubarb. The 1980 program was a remake of Sykes’ 1969 film Rhubarb, which presses this conceit even further: Everyone says “rhubarb,” all the characters are named Rhubarb, car license plates read RHU BAR B, and a baby speaks by holding up a sign that says RHUBARB. “A visual gag,” said Sykes, “is worth three pages of dialogue.”

A Palindromic Pan

Guido Nazzo, an Italian tenor of the 1930s, sang only once in New York and received but one review: ‘Guido Nazzo: nazzo guido.’

— Willard R. Espy, Another Almanac of Words at Play, 1981

Tech Talk

http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9343
Image: Ozan Kilic

In 2017 research scientist Janelle Shane tried to train a neural network to name kittens:

Jeckle
Elbent
Jenderina
Roober
Snorp
Snox Boops
Cylon
Sookabear
Jexley Pickle
Toby Booch
Snowpie
Big Wiggy Bool
Mr Whinkles
Licky Cat
Mr Bincheh
Maxy Fay
Mr Gruffles
Liony Oli
Lingo
Conkie
Lasley Goo
Marvish
Mag Jeggles
Corko
Maggin
Mcguntton
Mara Tatters
Mush Jam
Tilly-Mapper
Mr. Jubble
Mumcake
Muppin

Bonus: At one point she accidentally trained the network on a dataset of character names from Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other fantasy authors and got Jarlag, Mankith, Andend of Karlans, and Mr. Yetheract. See the full list.

“Singular Plurals”

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/698003

Now if mouse in the plural should be, and is, mice,
Then house in the plural, of course, should be hice,
And grouse should be grice and spouse should be spice
And by the same token should blouse become blice.

And consider the goose with its plural of geese;
Then a double caboose should be called a cabeese,
And noose should be neese and moose should be meese
And if mama’s papoose should be twins, it’s papeese.

Then if one thing is that, while some more is called those,
Then more than one hat, I assume, would be hose,
And gnat would be gnose and pat would be pose
And likewise the plural of rat would be rose.

— Author unknown

The Devens Literacy Test

This test was administered to recruits at Fort Devens, Mass., during World War I. The idea is to measure reading comprehension, but the questions take on a surreal poetry:

https://books.google.com/books?id=YIH7DBtwZOkC&pg=PA281

Norms:

Below 6: Illiterate
6 to 20: Primary
21 to 25: Grammar
26 to 30: Junior high school
31 to 35: Senior high school
36 to 42: College

Three additional versions of the test are given here.

International Relations

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fanlight,_Belfast_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1531243.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The French word for fanlight, vasistas, derives from the German phrase Was ist das? (“Who’s there?” or literally “What is that?”).

There seem to be two competing explanations: Either German visitors to France were unfamiliar with these windows and commonly asked about them — or French visitors to Germany often heard that phrase called through the window before the door opened.