Lost in Translation

A dry footnote from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, regarding the Porteous Riots of 1736, in which a guard captain was lynched in Edinburgh:

The Magistrates were closely interrogated before the House of Peers, concerning the particulars of the Mob, and the patois in which these functionaries made their answers, sounded strange in the ears of the Southern nobles. The Duke of Newcastle having demanded to know with what kind of shot the guard which Porteous commanded had loaded their muskets, was answered naively, ‘Ow, just sic as ane shoots dukes and fools with.’ This reply was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the Provost would have suffered accordingly, but that the Duke of Argyle explained, that the expression, properly rendered into English, meant ducks and waterfowl.

(Thanks, Fred.)

All Right Then

Image: Wikimedia Commons

From Roland Barthes’ 1975 autobiography:

I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a ‘nose’ make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.

I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos, Burgundian branles and Renaissance dances, the organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.

A Planned And

Martin Gardner offered this curiosity in the August 1998 issue of Word Ways: Roll two six-sided dice. If they show a total of 6 or 8, roll them again. Otherwise, go to the chapter of Genesis (the King James version) that corresponds to the total on the dice. Now turn both dice upside down and go to the verse whose number is now displayed. The first word of that verse will always be And.

(Martin Gardner, “Mysterious Precognitions,” Word Ways 31:3 [August 1998], 175-177.)

“A Rebus-Letter”


Mark Twain sent this letter to his wife and daughters from Montreal on Nov. 27, 1881. What does it mean?

Click for Answer

Breaking the News

A letter from William Cullen Bryant to his mother, Jan. 16, 1821:

Dear Mother:

I hasten to communicate to you the melancholy intelligence of what has lately happened to me.

Early in the evening of the eleventh day of the present month, I was at a neighbouring house in this village. Several people of both sexes assembled in one of the apartments — three or four others, together with myself were in another. At last came a little elderly gentleman, pale, thin, with a solemn countenance, a pleuritic voice, hooked nose, and hollow eyes. Presently we were summoned to attend in the room where he and the rest of the company were assembled. We went in, and took our seats; the little elderly gentleman with the hooked nose then prayed, and we all stood up. When he had finished, most of us sat down. The little elderly gentleman with the hooked nose then asked those who remained standing for something which he called a certificate … A paper was accordingly produced, inscribed with certain significant characters, upon which having mused a little while, he turned to us and pronounced several cabalistical expressions, which I was too much frightened to remember — but I recollect very well, that, at the conclusion, I was given to understand that I was married to a young lady of the name of Frances Fairchild, whom I perceived standing by my side, and whom I hope, in the course of the next few months, to have the pleasure of introducing to you as your daughter-in-law; which is a matter of some interest to the poor girl who has neither father nor mother in the world. …

I looked only for goodness of heart, an ingenuous and affectionate disposition, a good understanding &c. &c., and the character of my wife is too frank and single-hearted to suffer me to suppose the possibility of my being disappointed. — I misstate the matter — I did not look for these, nor any qualities — but they trapped me before I was aware, and now I am married in spite of myself. When we shall begin to keep house will depend, as everything else does, altogether upon circumstances.

Thus the current of destiny carries us all along. None but a madman would swim against the stream, and none but a fool would exert himself to swim with it. The best way is to float idly with the tide. …

Your affectionate son

W.C. Bryant

What Needs More Words?


Ecologists often have to estimate the number of unseen species in an ecosystem: If I count x species of butterfly during my time on an island, how many species probably live there that I did not see? In 1975, Stanford statisticians Bradley Efron and Ronald Thisted applied the same question to the works of William Shakespeare: If we take the Bard’s existing works as a sample, what can we infer about the size of his total vocabulary?

Shakespeare’s known works comprise 884,647 words, which fall into 31,534 “types,” or distinguishable arrangements of letters. Efron and Thisted applied two approaches and found that they produced the same estimate: If a new cache of the playwright’s works were discovered today, equal in size to the old, it would likely contain about 11,460 new word types, with an expected error of less than 150.

So how many word types altogether did Shakespeare know? No upper bound is possible, but they established a lower bound of 35,000 beyond the 31,534 already used — in other words, to write the works that we know of, he likely used less than half his total vocabulary.

(Bradley Efron and Ronald Thisted, “Estimating the Number of Unseen Species: How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know?”, Biometrika 63:3 [1976], 435-447.) (Thanks, Brent.)

The Fog of War


Franklin K. Young worked out a way to apply battlefield principles to the chessboard. Unfortunately, his description is incomprehensible:

The normal formative processes of a Logistic Grand Battle consist, first, in Echeloning by RP to QR4 and then in Aligning the Left Major Front Refused en Potence by the development of QKtP to QKt5, followed by Doubly Aligning the Left Major Front Refused and Aligned by developing QRP to QR5.

The final and decisive development in the formative process of a Logistic Grand Battle is the transformation of the Left Refused Front Doubly Aligned into a Grand Left Front Refused and Echeloned by the development of QRP to QR6.

Chess historian Edward Winter quotes a 1909 parody by P.H. Williams in Chess Chatter & Chaff:

White here takes the opportunity of duple deployment of bolobudginous hoplites, by mutual transposition of kindred hypothetics — the one in enfilade, the other in marmalade. This example of Tyntax involves duodecimal parabaloidic curves, whose radii are in strict parallelism with the dyptic hypotenuse. (Note: These terms will be elucidated when the author has discovered meanings for them, in a glossary of 457 pages.)

The system was still obscure when Young died in 1931, but perhaps you can make sense of it: His works are here.

And That Meant Comfort

Image: Flickr

At a 1994 conference on indoor air temperature standards, participant M.A. Humphreys considered the thermal environments of hobbits. If we wanted to prepare a hole for some visiting halflings, we could study the physics and physiology of their current living arrangements, hoping to find a scientifically optimal solution, but it might be wiser simply to give them the means to adjust the conditions themselves, according to their own changing preferences. In that case:

  1. We did not need to know anything at all about the thermal physiology of Hobbits, such as the diurnal cycle of their body-temperature, the metabolic heat production of their various activities, whether they could sweat or shiver or pant, or whether the Dubois relation between height, weight and skin surface-area held good for Hobbits;
  2. we did not need to know anything about the heat exchange between Hobbit-skin and the hole, such as the surface heat-transfer coefficients by convection or by radiation, the mean skin temperature and at what sites it is best measured, the thermal insulation of their colorful clothing-ensembles, or the vapour permeability of their clothing materials.

“It would be fascinating to know about these things, and thermal comfort researchers whose original education was, like mine, in the physical sciences would only with great difficulty be able to restrain their curiosity. Such knowledge would help to explain quantitatively the thermal balance of Hobbits, and would give us a theoretical explanation of their comfort conditions, and might be useful in identifying potentially dangerous environments, but it would not be needed to enable us to provide comfortable apartments for our Hobbits. This is not surprising if we recall that achieving thermal comfort pre-dates by thousands of years the development of the theory of heat exchange.”

(M.A. Humphreys, “Thermal Comfort Temperatures and the Habits of Hobbits,” in Standards for Thermal Comfort: Indoor Air Temperature Standards for the 21st Century, 1995, 3-13.)

Unusual Books

Image: Flickr

Adam Thirlwell’s 2012 novel Kapow! and Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 House of Leaves (above) are typeset unconventionally, with some text appearing in separate blocks, aslant, and even upside down.

To create his 2010 book Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer took Bruno Schulz’s 1934 short story collection The Street of Crocodiles and physically cut out most of the words to produce a new story.

Marc Saporta’s 1962 novel Composition No. 1 consists of 150 unbound pages that can be read in any order.

Anne Carson’s 2010 Nox is an accordion-folded facsimile of a handmade book of memories of her brother, including old letters, family photos, and sketches.

Holes have been cut in several of the pages in B.S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo, allowing the reader to glimpse events further ahead in the story.

The plot of Serbian novelist Milorad Pavić’s 1988 Landscape Painted With Tea is constructed like a crossword puzzle, with chapters that can be read “across” or “down.” “The solution of the puzzle is supposed to lead to the solution of life.”

Will I Am

In the year 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was published, William Shakespeare was 46 and 47 years old. The 46th word from the start of the 46th Psalm is shake, and the 47th word from the end is spear. Also, the 14th word is will, and the 32nd word from the end is am, preceded by I. And 14 + 32 = 46.

Remarkably, these coincidences obtain also in Richard Taverner’s 1539 Bible, which uses a different wording.

(J. Karl Franson, “A Myth About the Bard,” Word Ways 27:3 [August 1994], 154.)