A Perfect Alphabet


Thomas More’s Utopia gives us not only a description of that imaginary land but the actual alphabet used there: More’s friend Peter Giles wrote an addendum to the book that presents the letters and gives an example of the Utopian writing system:

Vtopos ha Boccas peu la chama polta chamaan.
Bargol he maglomi Baccan foma gymno sophaon.
Agrama gymnosophon labarembacha bodamilomin.
Voluala barchin heman la lauoluola dramme pagloni.

This is translated into Latin as

Utopus me dux ex non insula fecit insulam.
Una ego terrarum omnium absque philosophia
Civitatem philosophicam expressi mortalibus
Libenter impartio mea, non gravatim accipio meliora.

And in English this becomes

The commander Utopus made me into an island out of a non-island.
I alone of all nations, without philosophy,
Have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city.
Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.

Working backward, this makes it possible to divine the meaning of a few Utopian words: boccas is commander, chama is island, voluala is willingly, and gymnosophaon is philosophy. You couldn’t really talk about much beyond perfect societies, but maybe that’s the point.


George Bernard Shaw argued passionately for the reform of English spelling, which he found bewildering and inconsistent. When opponents objected that imposing changes would be too disruptive, he suggested that we might alter or delete just one letter per year, to give the reading public time to adapt. In 1971 writer M.J. Shields sent a letter to the Economist imagining the consequences:

For example, in Year 1, that useless letter ‘c’ would be dropped to be replased by either ‘k’ or ‘s’, and likewise ‘x’ would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which ‘c’ would be retained would be in the ‘ch’ formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might well reform ‘w’ spelling, so that ‘which’ and ‘one’ would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish ‘y’, replasing it with ‘i’, and Iear 4 might fiks the ‘g/j’ anomali wonse and for all.

Jeneralli, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear, with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing the vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai ier 15 or sou, it wud fainali be posible tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez ‘c’, ‘y’ and ‘x’ — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ‘ch’, ‘sh’ and ‘th’ rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers of orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. Haweve, sins xe Wely, xe Airiy, and xe Skots du not spik Ingliy, xei wud hev to hev a speling siutd tu xer oun lengwij. Xei kud, haweve, orlweiz lern Ingliy az a sekond lengwij at skuul!

Iorz feixfuli,

M. J. Yilz



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


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.