While writing for the Charleston News and Courier, journalist Frank Gilbreth Jr. made a study of the local language. “Although, as everyone knows, Charlestonians speak perfect English,” he wrote, “residents of many other sections of the United States unfortunately do not. Ironically, these sloppy talkers from elsewhere complain sometimes, while visiting the Holy City, that they cannot understand the pure and clear accents of Charlestonians.” He offered a glossary:

ABODE: wooden plank

AIN’T: sister of one of your parents

BALKS: a container, such as a match balks

BALL: to heat a liquid until it bubbles

CANADA: politician running for public office

FAINTS: a barricade of wood or brick

FORKS: bushy-tailed animal hunted by riders in red coats

MINE EYES: salad dressing

SEND WISHES: items of food made with bread, handy for a picnic

TOY: cravat

WRETCHED: the long name for the nickname “Dick”

“A person desiring to maneuver a car to the curb might ask a pool-lease-man, ‘Cain I police pack hair?’ To which the pool-lease-man would doubtless respond, ‘No, you cain not.'”

Eventually he published a dictionary under the pseudonym Lord Ashley Cooper, and the paper sold it for 25 cents a copy. I don’t know whether it did any good. The whole thing is here.


The biologist can push it back to the original protist, and the chemist can push it back to the crystal, but none of them touch the real question of why or how the thing began at all. The astronomer goes back untold million of years and ends in gas and emptiness, and then the mathematician sweeps the whole cosmos into unreality and leaves one with mind as the only thing of which we have any immediate apprehension. Cogito ergo sum, ergo omnia esse videntur. All this bother, and we are no further than Descartes. Have you noticed that the astronomers and mathematicians are much the most cheerful people of the lot? I suppose that perpetually contemplating things on so vast a scale makes them feel either that it doesn’t matter a hoot anyway, or that anything so large and elaborate must have some sense in it somewhere.

— Dorothy L. Sayers, The Documents in the Case, 1930

Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer,_Strada_in_pianura.jpg

In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

See full show notes …

Two Puzzles

In 2005 Keele University computer scientist Gordon Rugg published two ciphers to the web.

The first is called the Penitentia Manuscript. The image above is only one panel; you can view and download the whole thing here. Rugg’s website provides one clue: “Most modern codes are based on a shared set of underlying assumptions. He wondered what would happen if you deliberately ignored those assumptions. What sorts of code might that produce?” There’s some more info here.

The second cipher, called the Ricardus Manuscript, was inspired by Rugg’s work on another famous puzzle: “When Gordon was working on the Voynich Manuscript, he started wondering what a real code based on the components of the Voynich Manuscript would look like. This code is the result.” Again, the image below is only a sample; you can find the whole thing here. More info here.

Both of these ciphers have been freely available on the web for more than 10 years, and both remain unsolved. Any takers?

Extraordinary Lengths

A number of German writers intentionally suppressed the letter ‘r’ (as did also a fair number of Italians), of whom the eighteenth-century German poet Gottlob Burmann (1737-1805) is perhaps the most amusing: he is reported to have hated the letter ‘r’ to such an extent that in 130 poems he never used it and refused to pronounce his own last name.

— Laurence de Looze, The Letter & the Cosmos, 2016

Hill of Crosses
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses has been a site of peaceful protests since 1831, when indigenous peasants began to stage rebellions against their Russian overlords. Even when they lacked bodies to bury they erected crosses on the 33-foot mound as memorials and as symbols of peaceful resistance. The region was freed after World War I but then captured by the Nazis and later incorporated into the U.S.S.R.; again the local population planted crosses of defiance, though they were mown down three times by Soviet bulldozers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hill has become an important symbol of political and spiritual self-determination. It now bears an estimated 100,000 crosses.

A Discovery

Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”

I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.

“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”

(From Democracy in America, 1835.)

Peace and Quiet

Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s ARM Architecture designed the 31-story Swanston Square apartment building in Melbourne with custom-shaped white balconies against black windows, so that from a distance the face of Aboriginal leader William Barak emerges.

It’s situated to face the Shrine of Remembrance, which honors Australians who have served in war. “The site has this potential to be a very significant part of the public realm,” ARM founding director Howard Raggatt said. “The realization of the great civic axis of Swanston Street meant that we could acknowledge the Shrine at one end and then the deep history representation at the other.”