English comedian Stanley Unwin invented his own language, “Basic Engly Twenty Fido,” a playfully twisted version of English that he said had been inspired by his mother, who once told him that she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers.”

After that, he said, he became “a masterlode of the verbally thrips oratory.” Asked his opinion of Elvis Presley, he said, “Well, from across the herring-pole where harth the people has produced some waspwaist and swivel-hippy, I must say the rhythm contrapole sideways with the head and tippy tricky half fine on the strings.”

The Small Faces asked him to narrate the story of Happiness Stan on their 1968 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. He starts, “Are you all sitty comforty bolt two square on your botty? Then I’ll begin. Like all real-life experience story this also begins once upon a polly-ti-to. Now after little lapse of time Stan became deep hungry in his tumload. After all he struggly trickly half several mileode, and anyone would suffer under this.”

This might recall Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” or such fictional languages as Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The difference is that, for the most part, Unwin wasn’t preparing his utterances in advance but improvising them on the spot.

In 2002 he was laid to rest beside his wife, Frances, under an epitaph that read “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!” And his family arranged a thanksgiving service with a valediction in his own style: “Goodly byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee — oh yes!”

A Private World


As a boy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son Hartley invented an imaginary world called Ejuxria, with a detailed history and geography that he described to his brother Derwent as he created it. Derwent later recalled:

The Ejuxrian world presented a complete analogon to the world of fact, so far as it was known to Hartley, complete in all its parts; furnishing a theatre and scene of action, with dramatis personae and machinery, in which, day after day, for the space of long years, he went on evolving the complicated drama of existence. There were many nations, continental and insular, each with its separate history, civil, ecclesiastical, and literary, its forms of religion and government, and specific national character. When at length a sense of unreality was forced upon him, and he felt himself obliged to account for his knowledge of, and connection with, this distant land, he had a story … of a great bird, by which he was transported to and fro. But he recurred to these explanations with great reluctance and got rid of them as quickly as possible. Once I asked him how it came that his absence on these occasions was not observed; — but he was angry and mortified, and I never repeated the experiment.

Robert Southey and Hartley’s mother saw to it that “a spot of waste ground was appropriated for Hartley’s use: this was divided into kingdoms and subdivided into provinces, each of the former being assigned to one of his playmates. A canal was to run through the whole, upon which ships were to be built. … War was to be declared and battles fought between the sovereign powers … [Hartley] had a scheme for training cats and even rats for various offices and labours, civil and military. … But how he talked! and how his hearers, one of them a playfellow from the town, the Sancho Panza of our Don Quixote, listened and believed!”

Derwent believed that Hartley kept elaborating Ejuxria even in adulthood. In Private Lives of the Ancient Mariner, Molly Lefebure speculates that Hartley’s great bird may eventually have evolved into an albatross in Samuel Coleridge’s mind. “Birds of such omen do not come into one’s life simply to be forgotten,” she writes. “They perch on the masthead of shrouded memory to swoop down into close view at some mysteriously given moment.”

Three in One

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A stunning geometric alphamagic square by Lee Sallows. The 3 × 3 grid is a familiar magic square in which each number is spelled out: The first cell contains the number 25, the second 2, and so on. Interpreted in this way, each row, column, and long diagonal sums to 45.

But there’s more: The English name of the number in each cell has been arranged onto a distinctive tile, such that the three tiles in any row, column, or long diagonal can be combined to form the same 21-cell figure, as shown. (Shapes with dotted outlines have been turned over.)

And yet more: Count the number of letters in each of the number names (or, equivalently, count the number of cells that make up each tile). So, for example, TWENTY-FIVE has 10 letters, so replace the TWENTYFIVE tile with the number 10. Similarly, replace TWO with 3, EIGHTEEN with 8, and so on. This produces another magic square:

10  3  8
 5  7  9
 6 11  4

Each row, column, and long diagonal totals 21.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Composer Bohuslav Martinu had a remarkably inauspicious start in life: He was born in a church tower in Bohemia, which the town had granted to his father, a sexton. A sickly child, he often had to be carried up the 143 stairs on his father’s back. He was shy, reticent, and physically uncoordinated. “It would be hard to imagine a more unpromising environment for a child composer, for there was no significant musical tradition within the family and for several years he hardly ever ventured from the tower,” writes Barry Cooper in Child Composers and Their Works.

He excelled in violin, but since manuscript paper wasn’t available to him it’s not clear how many of his early compositions have been lost. When he ventured to the Prague Conservatory in 1906, he offered a three-movement string quartet that he’d written at age 10. He hadn’t even learned the alto clef, and used the treble clef instead for the viola part.

His mother said that the director “was so impressed by Bohus’ composition that at first he doubted whether the score was my son’s own work, and asked who had helped him.” But no one in his village would have been skillful enough to do so.

They accepted him, and he went on to a distinguished international career, writing six symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores, and a wide range of orchestral, chamber, vocal, and instrumental works.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

I’m just sharing this because I think it’s pretty — it’s the smallest arrangement of identical non-crossing matchsticks that one can make on a tabletop in which each match-end touches three others.

Presented by German mathematician Heiko Harborth in 1986, it’s known as the Harborth graph.

Turning Back Time


A watch for left-handed people has been invented by a Kalamazoo jeweler, who believes that the left-handed look at things in a ‘left-handed’ fashion. The left-handed watch runs backward. The dial is arranged so that the numeral 1 is on the left hand of 12 instead of on the right as in the case of the ordinary watch. The hands also run from right to left instead of in the usual fashion. Mechanically, with the exceptions given, the left-handed watch differs very slightly from the ordinary time-piece.

The inventor constructed the unusual watch for the benefit of his daughter, who is left-handed.

Popular Science Monthly, January 1916

Crowd Control


A knight’s tour is a series of moves by a chess knight such that it visits each square on the chessboard once. The example above is a “closed” tour because it ends on the square where it started.

This inspired a puzzle posed by Martin Gardner. If we filled a standard chessboard with knights, one on each square, could all 64 of them move simultaneously? The closed knight’s tour shows that they could — they form a long conga line, with each knight vacating a square for the knight behind it to occupy.

Gardner asks: Could the same feat be accomplished on a 5 × 5 chessboard?

Click for Answer



In a letter written home from the Western Front in May 1915, 2nd Lt. Alexander Gillespie of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders describes a striking midnight experience:

Presently a misty moon came up, a nightingale began to sing … It was strange to stand there and listen, for the song seemed to come all the more sweetly and clearly in the quiet intervals between the bursts of firing. There was something infinitely sweet and sad about it, as if the countryside were singing gently to itself, in the midst of all our noise and confusion and muddy work; so that you felt the nightingale’s song was the only real thing which would remain when all the rest was long past and forgotten. …

So I stood there, and thought of all the men and women who had listened to that song, just as for the first few weeks after Tom was killed I found myself thinking perpetually of all the men who had been killed in battle — Hector and Achilles and all the heroes of long ago, who were once so strong and active, and now are so quiet. Gradually the night wore on, until day began to break, and I could see clearly the daisies and buttercups in the long grass about my feet. Then I gathered my platoon together, and marched back past the silent farms to our billets.

Another front-line soldier, J.C. Faraday, noticed the same effect. He wrote to the Times in July 1917, “You will have a terrific tearing and roaring noise of artillery and shot in the dead of night; then there will be a temporary cessation of the duel, with great quietness, when lo! and behold and hear! Hearken to his song! Out come the nightingales, right about the guns … And another kind of love music is introduced to our ears and souls, which does us good. Think? It makes you think — and beautiful thoughts come along to relieve you from the devilment of war and the men who cause it.”

(From Stephen Moss, A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching, 2013.)


The Hurwitz Singularity, an anamorphic sculpture by artist Jonty Hurwitz, began with a scan of the artist’s own head.

“I wanted to capture my physical being in as much detail as technology allowed,” he writes. “It felt appropriate to be able to analyse myself at the highest resolution that modern science could record spacetime.”

“This sculpture evolved when I was deep in Freudian Therapy. Four days a week on the sofa blazing new trails from the road that Sigmund Freud first mapped. To my analyst I dedicate this piece. Dr Sanchez Bernal this is the Hurwitz Singularity!”

There’s more at the artist’s website.