Semiotician Charles K. Bliss was born in Czernowitz, in Austria-Hungary, a city with a confluence of nationalities that “hated each other, mainly because they spoke and thought in different languages.” So Bliss invented a new language to encourage communication between speakers of different languages — “Blissymbols” were ideographic, meaning they conveyed ideas or concepts, and so were not beholden to any spoken language.

For example, the sentence above reads “I want to go to the cinema”:

  • The symbol for “person” is attended by the number 1, indicating the first person.
  • The heart indicates a feeling, modified by a serpentine line indicating “fire,” topped a caret, indicating that it’s a verb in this sentence.
  • The symbol for “leg” also gets a caret, as it’s to be interpreted as a verb here.
  • The symbol for “house” is modified by the symbol for “film,” and the arrow indicates movement.

The language never fulfilled its potential as a bridge among cultures, but it became popular in the 1970s in teaching disabled people to communicate, and an organization known as Blissymbolics Communication International oversees its applications around the world.

(Thanks, Zach.)

In a Word

n. official or professional jargon which confuses more than it clarifies; gobbledegook

This is such a useful word that its coiner actually received an award. Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce, invented it to describe one of the incomprehensible price orders published by the Chamber’s Office of Price Stabilization. His comment, published in the Chamber’s weekly publication Washington Report in January 1952, was lauded in an editorial in the Bellingham [Wash.] Herald, which sponsored a plaque.

Smith said he’d considered several words to describe the OPS order’s combination of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity, and complexity.” He’d rejected legalfusion, legalprate, gabalia, and burobabble.

At the award presentation, he was asked to define his word briefly. He answered, “Multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

Shop Talk

A dictionary of thieves’ slang, from Life in Sing Sing, by “Number 1500,” 1904:

Are you next?: Do you understand? Be wise
Crushing the jungle: Escaping from prison
Cracking the jug: Forcing an entrance into a bank
Busting the tag on a rattler: Breaking the seal on a freight car
Busting the bulls at the big show: Fighting with the police at the circus
Banging supers at the red wagon: Stealing watches at the ticket wagon
Hoisting a slab of stones: Stealing a tray of diamonds
He got whipped back to the Irish club house: He was remanded to the police station
Hitting the pipe at a hop-joint: Smoking opium in an opium joint
He busted the collar’s smeller: He broke the officer’s nose
The stall got his slats kicked in: The thief had his ribs broken
The gun slammed a rod to his nut: The thief put a pistol to his head
He pigged with the darb: He absconded with the money
The yeg men blew the gopher: The safe crackers forced open the doors of the safe with explosives

I went to the coast with a mob of paper-layers, but graft was on the fritzer. I blew out and rung in with a couple of penny-weighters. A Tommy and his papa. Everything was rosy, the cush was coming strong and I was patting this ginny on the hump, but I was a sooner. The Tommy got a swelled head and we split for all. I did the grand to Chicago and filled in with a yeg mob. We got a country jug on our first touch, but the box wasn’t heavy enough for five. They had a plant further on. But we had to wait till one of the mob went for some soup; as I had plenty of the darb I blew away and beat it back to Chic, and framed in with a couple of guns who were working east on the rattlers. We got the stuff all right. Well, I’m off to the joint to smoke up, so-so.

“I went to California with others to pass worthless checks. There wasn’t any money in it, so I left them and went with two expert thieves who make it a practice to rob jewelers, a woman and her lover. Everything looked bright. I was obtaining money easily and I was congratulating myself on my good fortune, but I was too hasty. This woman got independent and we parted for good. I purchased a first-class ticket to Chicago and met a gang of safe burglars whom I joined. Our first theft was the burglary of a safe in a suburban bank. The amount of money obtained was insufficient to repay five men for their trouble. They had in view another place to rob, but we had to wait while one of the men went for some nitroglycerine. As I had plenty of money, I parted from them and returned to Chicago. There I met two pickpockets who were going east on the cars with the intention of plying their trade. We stole a lot of money. And now I’m off to the opium den to smoke some opium. Good-by.”

Plausible Deniability,_N.Y.C._ca._1859.jpg

The Boston Gazette published this cleverly seditious “Enigmatical Ballad” on June 24, 1782. If each line is read in full, the poem supports British rule of the American colonies, but if either the italic or the roman text is read alone, then it advocates revolution:

I justify every part, of King and Parliament,
Of a whig with all my heart, I hate their cursed intent;
For to support I’ll try, friends of administration,
Friends of Liberty, are troubles to the nation;
I think the association, a cruel, base intent,
An honor to the nation, the act of Parliament,
I wish the best success, to North and his conclusion,
Unto the grand Congress, the worst of all confusion;
All luck beneath the sun, to Mansfield, Bute and North;
To General Washington, destruction and so forth,
Hark! Hark! the trumpet sounds, the din of war’s alarms,
O’er seas and solid ground, doth call us all to arms;
Who for King George doth stand, their honors soon will shine;
Their ruin is at hand, who with the Congress join;
The acts of Parliament, in them I much delight;
I hate their cursed intent, who for the Congress fight,
The Tories of the day, they are my daily toast;
They soon will sneak away, who independence boast,
Who non-resistance hold, they have my hand and heart;
May they for slaves be sold, who act a whiggish part;
On Mansfield, North and Bute, may daily blessings pour,
Confusion and dispute, on Congress evermore;
To North, that British Lord, may honors still be done;
I wish a block or cord, to General Washington.

Ear and Eye

Peculiarly British limericks:

There was a young fellow of Beaulieu,
Who loved a fair maiden most treaulieu.
He said, “Do be mine,”
And she didn’t decline,
So the wedding was solemnized deaulieu.

There was a young maid of Aberystwyth,
Who took corn to the mill to make grystwyth,
The miller, named Jack,
With a pat on her back,
Pressed his own to the lips that she kystwyth.

There was a mechalnwick of Alnwick,
Whose opinions were anti-Germalnwick;
So when war had begun,
He went off with a gun
The proportions of which were Titalnwick.

There was a young lady of Slough,
Who went for a ride on a cough.
The brute pitched her off
When she started to coff;
She ne’er rides on such animals nough. (Langford Reed)

A bald-headed judge called Beauclerk
Fell in love with a maiden seau ferk
Residing at Bicester,
Who said when he kicester,
“I won’t wed a man without herk.”

See This Sceptred Isle and Sound Rhymes.

“The Roadside Littérateur”

There’s a little old fellow and he has a little paintpot,
And a paucity of brushes is something that he ain’t got,
And when he sees a road sign, the road sign he betters,
And expresses of himself by eliminating letters.

Is transformed to CURVES ANGER US
Turns into 24-HOUR VICE
Is triumphantly condensed to

But the old fellow feels a slight dissatisfaction
With the uninspiring process of pure subtraction.
The evidence would indicate he’s taken as his mission
The improvement of the road signs by the process of addition.

Is improved to GASP AND BOIL
And simple REST ROOMS
And (perhaps his masterpiece)

Is elaborated to


Thus we see the critical mood
Becomes the creative attitude.

— Morris Bishop

“Forgotten Words Are Mighty Hard to Rhyme”

Quoth I to me, “A chant royal I’ll dite,
With much ado of words long laid away,
And make windsuckers of the bards who cite
The sloomy phrases of the present day.
My song, though it encompass but a page,
Will man illume from April bud till snow —
A song all merry-sorry, con and pro.”
(I would have pulled it off, too, given time,
Except for one small catch that didn’t show:
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.)

Ah, hadavist, in younghede, when from night
There dawned abluscent some fair morn in May
(The word for dawning, ‘sparrowfart,’ won’t quite
Work in here) — hadavist, I say,
That I would ever by stoopgallant age
Be shabbed, adushed, pitchkettled, suggiled so,
I’d not have been so redmod! Could I know? —
One scantling piece of outwit’s all that I’m
Still sure of, after all this catch-and-throw:
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

In younghede ne’er a thrip gave I for blight
Of cark or ribble; I was ycore, gay;
I matched boonfellows hum for hum, each wight
By eelpots aimcried, till we’d swerve and sway,
Turngiddy. Blashy ale could not assuage
My thirst, nor kill-priest, even. No Lothario
Could overpass me on Poplolly Row.
A fairhead who eyebit me in my prime
Soon shared my donge. (The meaning’s clear, although
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.)

Fair draggle-tails once spurred my appetite;
Then walking morts and drossels shared my play.
Bedswerver, smellsmock, housebreak was I hight —
Poop-noddy at poop-noddy. Now I pray
That other fonkins reach safe anchorage —
Find bellibone, straight-fingered, to bestow
True love, till truehead in their own hearts grow.
Still, umbecasting friends who scrowward climb,
I’m swerked by mubblefubbles. Wit grows slow;
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

Dim on the wong at cockshut falls the light;
Birds’ sleepy croodles cease. Not long to stay …
Once nesh as open-tide, I now affright;
I’m lennow, spittle-ready — samdead clay,
One clutched bell-penny left of all my wage.
Acclumsied now, I dare no more the scrow,
But look downsteepy to the Pit below.
Ah, hadavist! … Yet silly is the chime;
Such squiddle is no longer apropos.
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

— Willard R. Espy