A Man’s World

When Long Island filmmaker Ellen Cooperman divorced her husband in 1975, she changed her last name to Cooperperson because it “more properly reflects [my] sense of human equality than does the name Cooperman.”

State Supreme Court Justice John Scileppi refused to ratify the change, saying that it “would have serious and undesirable repercussions, perhaps throughout the entire country.” He cited “virtually endless and increasingly inane” possibilities: A person named “Jackson” might seek to become “Jackchild,” a “Manning” might prefer “Peopling,” or a woman named “Carmen” might want to be “Carperson.” “This would truly be in the realm of nonsense,” he said.

Undaunted, she appealed Scileppi’s decision and won in 1978. She’s still using Cooperperson today.

Warm Words

A German-born resident of Portland, Oregon named Otto Hell was permitted by a local judge to take the name Hall when he pointed out how his neighbors and associates took pleasure in calling him by his surname and the initial of his given name. Another Otto Hell was an optometrist who complained that persons in need of glasses were always being told to ‘go to Hell and see.’

— Robert M. Rennick, “Obscene Names and Naming in Folk Tradition,” in Names and Their Varieties, 1986

The Case of the Self-Stealing Store

In 1983, Jacob Henderson was convicted of burglarizing a Maaco paint shop in Jackson, Miss. He appealed on the ground that the indictment was illiterate:

The Grand Jurors for the State of Mississippi, … upon their oaths present: That Jacob Henderson … on the 15th day of May, A.D., 1982.

The store building there situated, the property of Metro Auto Painting, Inc., … in which store building was kept for sale or use valuable things, to-wit: goods, ware and merchandise unlawfully, feloniously and burglariously did break and enter, with intent the goods, wares and merchandise of said Metro Auto Painting then and there being in said store building unlawfully, feloniously and then and there being in said store building burglariously to take, steal and carry away; And
One (1) Polaroid Land Camera,
One (1) Realistic AM/FM Stereo Tuner
One (1) Westminster AM/FM radio
One (1) Metal Box and contents thereof,

… the property of the said Metro Auto Painting then and there being in said store building did then and there unlawfully, feloniously and burglariously take, steal and carry away the aforesaid property, he, the said Jacob Henderson, having been twice previously convicted of felonies, to-wit: … .

Henderson called an English teacher as an expert witness. She pointed out that the district attorney’s indictment doesn’t charge Henderson with any wrongdoing; instead it charges the merchandise itself with breaking into the paint store.

“This case presents the question whether the rules of English grammar are a part of the positive law of this state,” wrote Justice Robertson for the court. “If they are, Jacob Henderson’s burglary conviction must surely be reversed, for the indictment in which he has been charged would receive an ‘F’ from every English teacher in the land.”

“Though grammatically unintelligible, we find that the indictment is legally sufficient and affirm, knowing full well that our decision will receive of literate persons everywhere opprobrium as intense and widespread as it will be deserved.”

“Poetical Economy”

What hours I spent of precious time,
What pints of ink I used to waste,
Attempting to secure a rhyme
To suit the public taste,
Until I found a simple plan
Which makes the lamest lyric scan!

When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off without apol.
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that time is mon.

My sense remains as clear as cryst.,
My style as pure as any duch.
Who does not boast a bar sinist.
Upon her fam. escutch.,
And I can treat with scornful pit.
The sneers of ev’ry captious crit.

I gladly publish to the pop.
A scheme of which I make no myst.,
And beg my fellow scribes to cop.
This labor-saving syst.
I offer it to the consid.
Of ev’ry thoughtful individ.

The author, working like a beav.,
His readers’ pleasure could redoub.,
Did he but now and then abbrev.
The works he gives his pub.,
Did Upton Sinc. or Edith Whart.
Curtail their output by a quart.

If Mr. Caine rewrote “The Scape.”,
And Miss Corell. condensed “Barabb.”,
What could they save in foolscap pape.
Did they but cultivate the hab.
Which teaches people to suppress
All syllables that are unnec.!

If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes
(“The Second Mrs. Tanq.” by Pin.
Or even “Ham.” by Shakes.),
We could maintain a wakeful att.
When at a mat. on Wed. or Sat.

Foll. my examp., O Maurice Hewl.
When next you cater for the mill.;
You, too, immortal Mr. Dool.
And Ella Wheeler Wil.;
And share with me the grave respons.
Of writing this amazing nons.!

— Harry Graham, in Life, December 1909

Attenuated Language

What’s the longest “narrow” word — the longest word whose handwritten letters keep tidily to the middle of the line?

Dmitri Borgmann considered this question in 1965 and came up with overnervousnesses and overnumerousnesses — 17 and 18 letters.

In 1973 Darryl Francis sought the opposite — “tall” words made up entirely of letters that ascend above the mean line or descend below it. He discovered if, hip, glib, lipid, highly, fifthly, filthify, flightily, and lillypilly.

“I must tell you that my wife has a theory that only thin people can talk English well,” Bismarck told journalist Henri de Blowitz in 1878. “According to this, neither you nor I will make our mark in that language.”

The Right Word

Useful German:

  • Feierabend: a festive frame of mind at the end of a working day
  • Drachenfutter: (“dragon fodder”) a peace offering to a wife from a guilty husband
  • Fachmensch: a narrow specialist
  • Fingerspitzengefühl: (“fingertipfeel”) intuitive sensibility, confident sureness of touch
  • fisselig: nagged and flustered to the point of incompetence
  • pomadig: “like hair oil,” able to slip through difficulties
  • Verschlimmbesserung: an intended improvement that has made things worse
  • Stammplatz: a favorite usual spot, as a table at a café
  • Zivilcourage: courage to stand up for what is right
  • Zwischenraum: the space between things

The contraceptive pill is the Antibabypille. “I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it,” wrote Mark Twain, “but I talk it best through an interpreter.”

Menu Trouble

Charles Ollier observed that GHOTI can be pronounced “fish”:

  • GH as in laugh
  • O as in women
  • TI as in nation

Melville Dewey, who devised the Dewey Decimal System, suggested that GHEAUGHTEIGHPTOUGH spells “potato”:

  • GH as in hiccough
  • EAU as in beau
  • GHT as in naught
  • EIGH as in neigh
  • PT as in pterodactyl
  • OUGH as in though

This sort of thing can get out of hand quickly. In his 1845 Plea for Phonotypy and Phonography, Alexander John Ellis offered SCHIESOURRHCE for “scissors,” GNUITHEIERRH for “neither,” PHAIGHPHEAWRAIBT for “favorite,” PSOURRPHUAKNTW for “servant,” and (fittingly) EOLOTTHOWGHRHOIGHUAY for “orthography.”

GHOTI might even be silent:

  • GH as in though
  • O as in people
  • T as in ballet
  • I as in business

Other languages, it seems, have simply surrendered — the Klingon word for fish is ghotI.

In a Word

n. a sleepwalker

In Fain v. Commonwealth, 78 Ky. 183, the defendant, a somnambulist, had gone to sleep in a public room in a hotel, and on being roughly awakened by a stranger, drew a pistol and killed him, imagining himself in danger. The court observed: ‘If the prisoner is and has been afflicted in the manner claimed and knew, as he no doubt did, his propensity to do acts of violence when aroused from sleep, he was guilty of a grave breach of social duty in going to sleep in the public room of a hotel with a deadly weapon on his person, and merits for that reckless disregard of the safety of others some degree of punishment, but we know of no law under which he can be punished. Our law only punishes for overt acts done by responsible moral agents. If the prisoner was unconscious when he killed the deceased, he cannot be punished for that act, and as the mere fact that he had the weapon on his person and went to sleep with it there did no injury to any one, he cannot be punished for that.’ Now, is a man who knows himself liable to violent attacks of insanity guilty of ‘a grave breach of social duty’ in not incarcerating himself in an insane asylum?

Albany Law Journal, July 8, 1882

“A Tragic Calendar”

JANet was quite ill one day.
FEBrile troubles came her way.
MARtyr-like she lay in bed;
APRoned nurses softly sped.
“MAYbe,” said the leech judicial,
“JUNket would be beneficial.”
JULeps, too, though freely tried,
AUGured ill, for Janet died.
SEPulcher was sadly made;
OCTaves pealed and prayers were said.
NOVices with many a tear
DECorated Janet’s bier.

— Carolyn Wells, Folly for the Wise, 1904