Limited Resources

In a 1993 segment on National Public Radio, Will Shortz challenged listeners to construct sentences that use only two consonants, such as “Can Connie, a nice niece in Canaan, can-can on a canoe in uncanny innocence?”

The winner, sent in by Dawne Bear and Rachel Chanin, was “See Tess taste-test Sissy’s sassy tea to attest to its tastiest status.” Other entries:

  • Beddy-bye, baby boy! Bid Daddy bye-bye! (Jim Hamilton)
  • Babs’ boss, Bobb, sobs as Bea’s base beau, Bubba, abuses sea bass. (Roxanne Bogucka)
  • A good guide dog did guide Dad. (Joe Cahill, Susan Morse)
  • Did dull addled Lady Della deal old ally, idle loaded Daddy Leo, a leaden dolly load o’ dilled eel? (Dorothy Thayer)
  • Dear Radio Reader: Did Eduardo, a rodeo rider, dare ride a rare red doe, or did Dario, a dour dude, roar “I rode a ruder, redder deer”? Adieu, Dierdre. (Bernell Scott)
  • At tea, a tattooed idiot did ode to a dead toad (a tad odd!). (Matt Hulen)
  • Otto, Thea! Out to the auto to toot to the heath! Tote the tot that hath the teeth to eat the hat! (Uh-oh, it hit Thea.) Aha, tie the hat to the tot! Ta-ta! (Bruce and Barbara Lessey)
  • Sally, a sassy lass, says “Susie is a souse — also loose”. Sly Susie says “I’ll sue!” (Aarne Hartikka)
  • A little tale to titillate — title: Lolita. (Toby Gottfried)
  • Name me: I am anyone, I am no one; I’m an anima, a meanie, a ninny, a mommy in a muumuu, a nun in a mini; I am many; I am one ­– I am Man. (Wayne Eastman)
  • At a roar in a ruin near our nunnery, I ran in a rare noon rain. (Nancy Gannon)
  • Sue supposes Pa possesses poise as Pa passes Sue pea soup. Sue, pious as a spouse, passes Pa pie. (Jay Cary)
  • “Wow,” we roar, “we are aware we wore wire a wry way. We’re a wee raw! We rue!” (Sylvia Coogan)

In presenting these in Word Ways the following May, editor Ross Eckler noted that “No one discovered that palindromes sometimes work: too hot to hoot; Madam, I’m Adam; name no one man.”

In a Word

arreptitious
adj. liable to raptures

congaudence
n. rejoicing together

nundination
n. buying and selling, trade

melic
adj. intended to be sung

“Selling I. B. M.” to be sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1937 corporate hymnal Songs of The IBM:

Selling I. B. M., we’re selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We’re Watson’s great crew, we’re loyal and true;
We’re proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we’re there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We’re always in trim, we work with a vim,
We’re selling, just selling, I. B. M.!

(Via MetaFilter.)

Dead Letters

In James Thurber’s 1957 fairytale book The Wonderful O, two pirates, Black and Littlejack, assail the innocent island of Ooroo, seeking hidden treasure. Frustrated with their unsuccessful search, Black issues an edict banning the letter O, which he hates (his mother had once become wedged in an O-shaped porthole; “we couldn’t pull her in and so we had to push her out”). Accordingly the orchestra loses its violins, cellos, and trombones; the villagers must move from cottages to huts; and so on. One laments:

They are swing chas. What is slid? What is left that’s slace? We are begne and webegne. Life is bring and brish. Even schling is flish. Animals in the z are less lacnic than we. Vices are filled with paths and scial intercurse is baths. Let us gird up ur lins like lins and rt the hrrr and ust the afs.

I’ll leave you to read the resolution yourself.

For a more recent fable about an island beset by a letter shortage, see Mark Dunn’s progressively lipogrammatic 2001 novel Ella Minnow Pea. Maybe it’s the same island!

Baltimorese

In the 1990s, South Baltimore native Gordon Beard compiled a series of phrasebooks to help bewildered travelers understand his city’s residents:

amblanz — ambulance
bobwar — barbed wire
corter — quarter
flare — flower
goff — golf
har — hire
keerful — careful
mare — mayor
neck store — next door
orning — awning
plooshin — pollution
roolty — royalty
twunny — twenty
varse — virus
warsh — wash
yewmid — humid

John Goodspeed, for 17 years a columnist at the Baltimore Evening Sun, had compiled his own list in the 1960s:

ahrsh — Irish
chowld — child
dayon — down
harrid — Howard
koor — car
larnix — larynx
nass — nice
owen — on
shares — showers
urshter — oyster

Apparently the confusion has persisted for decades. “The life of a Baltimore Army lieutenant may have been saved by Baltimore during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II,” Goodspeed once reported. “Military police suspected him of being a German spy in an American uniform, but an M.P. from Baltimore heard the lieutenant pronounce his home town as ‘Balamer’ and passed him as genuine. Only a native can say it that way.”

Procrustes

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-
ineers
Wore orange
Brassieres.

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

(From his entertaining rhyming dictionary.)

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamlet_mit_Polonius_auf_dem_Friedhof_1860.jpg

preterlethal
adj. taking place after death

inhume
v. to lay in the grave

janua
n. a door

The principal trap in almost all theatres is known as the grave trap. This is one of the conventionalisms of the English stage, and is a testimony also the enduring influence of Shakespeare. It is well understood that at some time or another the play of ‘Hamlet’ will be performed in every theatre, and Ophelia‘s grave must therefore be dug in every stage — hence the grave trap. It may be that it is not always placed in the right position to suit the ideas of each new representative of the Royal Dane, and it has happened that it has been found too short for the reception of poor Ophelia‘s coffin; but it is never omitted in the construction of a stage.

— Folger Shakespeare Library Scrapbook, quoted in Paul Menzer, Anecdotal Shakespeare, 2015

Has Beens

A popular puzzle asks the solver to punctuate the following:

John where Willie had had had had had had had had had had had full marks.

The common answer is

John, where Willie had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had full marks.

But in 1955 a contributor to Eureka pointed out that a competing solver might have reversed the two phrases:

John, where Willie had had “had had,” had had “had”; “had had” had had full marks.

And in that case we might observe:

In the punctuation of the above, A, where B had had “… had had ‘had,’ had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had …”, had had “… had had ‘had had,’ had had ‘had’; ‘had had’ had had …”; “had had had had had had had had had had had” had had two possible interpretations.

That observation itself can be punctuated in two different ways — a remark that might be communicated using an even longer string of hads. And so on forever — “there exist intelligible sentences containing (14 × 3n – 3) successive had‘s, where n is any non-negative integer.” “The solution of this recurrence relation is left as an exercise for the student.”

(“By Induction,” Eureka 18 [November 1955], 14. See Over and Out.)

Directions

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saks_Fifth_Avenue_Christmas_Light_Show_Snowstorm_2020_(50732619583).jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, sociolinguist William Labov ran a revealing experiment in three New York department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and S. Klein. Of the three, Saks generally commanded the highest prestige and S. Klein the lowest. Labov had found that one marker of social stratification in the city was the pronunciation of the letter R, and he wanted to see whether this was reflected in the speech of the salespeople at the various stores.

He did this by approaching a salesperson in each store and asking directions to a department on the fourth floor. When the salesperson told him “Fourth floor,” he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me?” This forced the person to say the phrase “Fourth floor” again, this time rather self-consciously.

As expected, Labov found that salespeople at the upscale Saks tended to pronounce their Rs, while those at the lower-priced Klein tended to the broader New York pronunciation “fawth flaw.” But when asked to repeat the phrase, those at Macy’s and Klein’s tended to amend their pronunciation to sound more “classy.”

“How can we account for the differences between Saks and Macy’s?” Labov wrote. “I think we can say this: the shift from the influence of the New England prestige pattern [r-less] to the mid-Western prestige pattern [r-full] is felt most completely at Saks. The young people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s there is less sensitivity to the effect among a large number of younger speakers who are completely immersed in the New York City linguistic tradition. The stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation: very few of them rely upon the older pattern of prestige pronunciation which supports the r-less tendency of older Saks sales people.”

In separate interviews Labov found that two thirds of New Yorkers felt that outsiders disliked the city accent. “They think we’re all murderers,” one man told him. A woman said, “To be recognized as a New Yorker — that would be a terrible slap in the face.”

(William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2006.)

Say It With Flowers

https://archive.org/details/languageflowers00shoba/page/254/mode/2up

The lost art of floriography assigned meanings to flowers so that lovers could exchange messages with “talking bouquets.” In his 1839 Language of Flowers, English journalist Frederic Shoberl rendered an entire verse by French poet Évariste de Parny as the combination of 16 flowers:

Aimer est un destin charmant,
C’est un bonheur qui nous enivre,
Et qui produit l’enchantement.
Avoir aimé, c’est ne plus vivre,
Hélas! c’est avoir acheté
Cette accablante vérité,
Que les serments sont un mensonge,
Que l’amour trompe tôt ou tard,
Que l’innocence n’est qu’un art,
Et que le bonheur n’est qu’un songe.

“It may be thus rendered: ‘To love is a pleasure, a happiness, which intoxicates; to love no longer, is to live no longer; it is to have bought this sad truth, that innocence is falsehood, that love is an art, and that happiness is a dream.'”

On The Ice

Unusual words used in Antarctica, from Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctic Dictionary (2000):

antarcticitis: a yearning for Antarctica
beachmastership: the territorial dominance of a breeding seal
degomble: to disencumber of snow
diomedeicide: the killing of an albatross
dogloo: an igloo for a dog
fingee: “fucking new guy”
frozen chosen: those who work in Antarctica
ice widow: a woman whose husband is in Antarctica
pinnipedophage: one who eats seal meat
polar ennui: a darkness of the soul in the polar night
snotsicle: a thread of frozen mucus suspended from the nose
sphenisciphile: a lover of penguins
unweka’d: unaffected by weka birds
whale-sick: depressed by a lack of whales to hunt

Some entries are almost moving: greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants after spending some time in antarctic regions.”

(Jeff Grant, who reviewed this book for Word Ways in 2005, points out that the first entry, AAAAAH, surpasses AAAATAMAD in W.R. Cooper’s 1876 An Archaic Dictionary as alphabetically the first published dictionary entry containing a consonant. It’s a sled dog command meaning “halt.”)